Only six years after arriving in Canada as a Syrian refugee, Hanen Nanaa has already made her mark on Canadian society.
She co-founded BAM Collective and the Starter Kit, served as an Ontario Regional Advisor for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, worked as an Ontario caucus advisor at the Liberal Research Bureau in the House of Commons, and more— all while studying Politics and Governance at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“I study full-time and I work full-time and I run a collective almost full-time, and I work for other initiatives on top of that,” she said. “It’s about the power and energy I bring as a young woman– the opportunities to face challenges, and the opportunities for success.”
At just 23 years old, Hanen Nanaa has already accomplished so much. And today, Together Project is honoured to announce that she will be part of our steering committee.
Hanen was only a ninth grader in Aleppo, Syria, when the war broke out and she fled with her family to Turkey.
Driven to find a better life for her parents and five siblings, Hanen learned Turkish, German, French, and English as she researched ways to find a permanent home. “By eighteen, I spoke English better than my parents, and I convinced them to come here,” she said.
And when they arrived in Scarborough, Hanen was the one everyone depended on. From translating legal documents to navigating medical appointments and more, she took on a leadership role in her family– one that would prepare her for her leadership role in the community.
In 2018, as an eighteen-year-old university student, Hanen started BAM Collective with her friend Hani Moulia, a fellow Syrian refugee. While BAM Collective started in Regent Park and Scarborough as an initiative for youth to speak about gun violence, its mission soon grew.
By pursuing community engagement through books, art, and music, BAM gathered young, racialized artists and community organizers together to work towards social change and youth empowerment.
“Our team consists of young people who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences,” she said. “The cool thing is that you’ll find refugees, Indigenous, Black youth, Muslims, Asians. We make sure that we have representatives from each community through lived experience.”
Currently, BAM is finding ways for refugees and Indigenous communities to connect.
“Hani and I realized that we were told that Indigenous people weren’t friendly to newcomers and refugees,” she said. “By working with Indigenous youth, we found that these are wrong assumptions told to us. We discovered so many commonalities between us, like the trauma of being forced to leave land.”
Together, Hanen and the Collective members are working for BAM to provide learning opportunities between refugees and Indigenous communities in Toronto and beyond.
Hanen credits her newcomer journey for pushing her to strive to be heard in Canada.
“Coming as a recent newcomer, refugee, and marginalized woman to this country, I had to be challenged in so many ways, like accessing education, employment, and other resources,” she said. “I was told, ‘It’s not your turn, you’re still young, take your time to start from zero, and learn English.’ To me, this was a way to say, ‘Don’t come back.’”
These setbacks motivated her to learn more about the political system. When Hanen started seeing that the reason behind her challenges was that refugee women weren’t encouraged to be at decision-making tables, she saw a future in politics.
And as her network grew, so did her self-confidence.
“One moment that was so common— and I still see it when I think about changing my community— is that someone would always say, ‘I think you’re gonna change the world. I think you have something special.’”
Even as a young newcomer, Hanen found the people who saw potential in her, and with their encouragement, she vowed to never lose sight of her dreams.
Today, Hanen works tirelessly to dismantle misconceptions about refugees in order to put them into decision-making positions.
“The assumptions that refugees are stealing jobs, that they’re not safe, and they’re here to steal opportunities— those create systemic racism on top of the violence and trauma of leaving everyone behind,” she said. “I want Canadians to look at the contributions that refugees make. We have truly made a huge contribution to this country; we’ve made positive changes at a local, national and global level.”
In order for refugees to have an even bigger impact, one of Hanen’s key goals is to advocate for newcomers to have a role beyond consultations.
“I’ve always said that it’s not about tokenizing refugees, but recognizing that they have so many values and skills to make a difference,” she said. “I’d love to see government, institutions, universities, and private-sector individuals hiring refugees and adding them at decision-making tables to evaluate and establish programs and policies.”
Hanen has been featured on CBC’s “The Dream Team” and worked for non-profits including the Syrian Canadian Foundation, WelcomeHome.TO, International Blue Crescent, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and more.
But through it all, Together Project has always had a special place in her heart.
Shortly after arriving in Canada in 2016, Hanen and her family heard about a picnic from volunteers at her mosque. Eager to make friends in Toronto, her family decided to attend.
“It was for the community to meet Syrians, and the performances were in Arabic. It felt like home,” she said.
After learning more about Together Project from co-founder Kate Bate, Hanen volunteered at a fundraiser, and then encouraged her younger sister to lend her voice for a Together Project promotional video.
And years later, after refusing many requests to be on other steering committees, Hanen decided to make Together Project her first steering committee experience.
“I’m really careful about joining as a board member just because they want to add a refugee,” she said. “However, when Kate reached out, I did my research. I knew Together Project had been adding refugee voices to decision-making tables at the operational level and programs, and that made me feel comfortable about the opportunity.”
As Together Project’s newest steering committee member, Hanen is eager to get started.
“I believe in the mission and goals of Together Project,” she said. “And at the same time, I want to share the voice of marginalized communities because I know that being on the steering committee gives you opportunities to share ideas– and I have so many ideas!”
Along with getting back into in-person initiatives, Hanen seeks to use her role to reach out to other refugees. “I want to engage not just the steering committee, but also refugees like myself who are fully integrated and can support other refugees,” she said.
“From BAM, I learned how to make fun, engaging ways to engage people through artistic workshops, musical events, and performances,” she said.
“I really look forward to more engaging events not just for refugees, but for volunteers, who are the founding base for Together Project. I want to do my tiny little part to remind people to work with refugees, but also to remind refugees that they have a huge role to play in their communities.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria