Sara Abdo has fond memories of growing up in an Egyptian family in Halifax. “My sister and I would watch plays in Arabic with my mother and, of course, we would fall asleep halfway through,” she chuckles. “It was always three families together, round the kitchen table, the women preparing traditional pastries, the men hanging out teasing them, joining in, the babies running around.”
They spoke Arabic at home and enjoyed Arabic music. “I remember going through junior-high and high-school years asking my mom to do things as locals did. I was recognizing I was different in some ways, but still appreciating elements of my culture.” Friends who have more recently come from Egypt are surprised at how current she is with Egyptian music and street language. “Are you sure you were born here?” they ask, jokingly.
I took the bits that I like from both cultures and made them my own.
Sara’s parents came to Canada in search of a better life — her father in 1987 and her mother in 1989. Her father’s best friend was already working here and able to help them settle. The small Egyptian community started the first Coptic Orthodox Church in Nova Scotia. Sara’s schools were not diverse, but she found people were supportive.
Sara’s dad, an engineer, died when she was seven but her mother remained in Canada, wanting her two daughters to be educated here. “That changed the dynamic and she had to be the mom and dad. I have not met a woman as tough as my mother in all that she did.” An accountant in Egypt, she worked here first in retail, then as a school lunch monitor, and today is an elementary-school educational-program assistant. The family visited Egypt often, but Sara and her sister sent their mother there for her first solo trip a few years ago — a rare opportunity to put herself first.
Sara, an occupational therapist, is ISANS’ disability support coordinator for new arrivals. “I help them navigate the health-care system. I help them with health needs and building skills to empower them to take charge of their health needs.” Sara was planning to become a physician, but found that occupational therapy suited her better. “I enjoy being able to spend more time with people, more hands-on, and follow their growth and development.” During her studies, a placement with the Halifax Refugee Clinic provided an opportunity to focus on challenges for new arrivals, including their mental health.
Sara has an undergrad degree in microbiology, immunology, and Italian studies. “My dad spoke a couple of different languages and he lived in Italy and spoke Italian. It’s a passion of mine to learn about other cultures and languages,” says Sara, who also speaks French and has a diverse circle of close friends. She teaches Sunday School and is co-chair and co-founder of a national network to help occupational therapists support newcomers.
Sara considers herself equal parts Canadian and Egyptian. “I took the bits that I like from both cultures and made them my own.” Her family never pressured her to succeed, but she “genuinely wanted to make them proud out of love, and to say thank you.”