Abdic and the girls pose for the camera at Driftwood Community Centre/ Photo courtesy of Sheyla Abdic

Sheyla and I enter the Driftwood community centre at Jane and Finch, and about a dozen girls are rehearsing their play “15 and Pregnant” to be performed for the show tomorrow. Brown floors and walls surround the foyer, with a colourful painting or two on the wall.

The windows are bulletproof, and the heavy doors lock automatically once closed. People walk around with walkie-talkies, and clickers are given to program coordinators; once the button is clicked, the police are instantly alerted.

In the janitor’s room, there is a map of the building’s layout, with Xs labeled on the different spots in and outside of the building where people have been shot and killed. There are Xs all over it.

Despite the seriousness, kids will still be kids. They’re laughing and fooling around, while their coordinator tries to get their attention.

It’s been a while since Sheyla Abdic, the coordinator for last year’s Girls’ Club, has seen them, so she’s excited when she finally has the time to stop by and see her girls for a bit. As she approaches them, they run over and give her a big hug with smiles planted on their faces. They’re glad to see her.

When Sheyla first started volunteering at the Driftwood community centre three years ago, they wondered why a European white girl would want to help high-risk youth in the most dangerous part of Toronto. They didn’t expect her to stay for so long.

But volunteering at Driftwood and helping kids stay off the streets has been one of her highlights since moving to Canada from Austria six years ago. For the past few years she’s been organizing fun activities for the girls to do, like taking them on trips, and cooking together.

“I love those girls,” Sheyla said. “I’m glad that I was able to break that barrier because I don’t want those little kids to grow up and think that white people hate them. I’m glad that I was able to play a role in their life,” she smiled.

The girls from the Club tell me about their fun times of sneaking out of the centre with Sheyla and rolling in the snow. One of them tells me about their visit to York University where they ended up playing hide-and-seek. The girls all seem to admire Sheyla as their leader and appreciate her for always showing them what’s right from wrong.

“She helped us through our problems and gave us great advice,” Vaslisa Berko said, who is part of the Girls’ Club. “She stuck by us even when we got her in trouble.”

But, the job wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

Many kids at the Driftwood centre are behaviorally disturbed and malnourished. It’s common for one of them to start crying out of the blue. They often have to cope with the ordeal that their 18-year-old brother just went to jail, or that their stepfather is beating their mother, or simply because they’re hungry. As Sheyla explains, it’s a hard life for them and they’re angry at the world.

“That’s the reality. It’s happening right next to York University,” Sheila explained. “And the percentage of those people going to York University is so low. It’s very sad.”

Unfortunately, the funding for this club was practically non-existent. Sheyla was heartbroken- there was so much that she wanted to do with her girls, but it was impossible without the least bit of money there.

That’s why she was thrilled to hear the host call out her name on stage as the winner of the Miss Perfect 10 pageant last year. With the $1,000, she could finally give her girls what they deserve.

“It was a result of hard work. It taught me yet again that, if you put your mind into something, and you take the proper steps to make sure that you get what you want, you’ll get it,” Sheyla said. “Very simple; it’s just like anything in life.”

Her voice carries optimism and determination.  But it’s when she talks about being a tutor when her passion truly shows.

“I love it. I love sharing my knowledge. When people light up, and get so happy after doing their calculus session, I’m glad. Because usually people cry when they have to do calculus,” she says with a contagious laugh.

Ever since she moved to Canada, she has been tutoring math and science, mostly helping kids from private schools, whose parents pay $75 per hour because as Sheyla says, “it’s nothing for them.” They’re able to pay $25,000 a year per child for their private high schools- a stark contrast from the education that children in the Driftwood area receive.

“That’s what makes the difference. It’s not that those kids are smarter- those kids get the opportunity to get better after-school help, they do better in school, they get into the better universities, and they make it in life,” Sheyla said.

The kids who live in the Jane and Finch area can find free tutoring here and there, but it’s not the same quality.

Sheyla decided that the perfect way to bridge the gap is to create her own tutoring company, aceonetutors, aimed at low-income families. Having won the Canadian Alesse competition in April for envisioning innovative new projects, she can now use the prize money of $5,000 for funding a scholarship geared for low-income families and making bookings simple by basing it online.

This girl seems to be winning everything she signs up for, so I asked her how she does it.

“We are often the biggest obstacle for ourselves,” she explains. “We often say to ourselves, ‘I can’t,’ ‘I’m not good enough’, but I just go for it. So far in my life, I’ve proven that anything that I wanted, I got it so far.”

With that in mind, she has volunteered in orphanages in Eastern Europe, helped raise thousands of dollars for humanitarian organizations, and is studying to become a surgeon.

But, it’s seeing how hard her parents had to work that made her to decide to do as much as she could with her life.

The Abdic family immigrated to Salzburg, Austria from Bosnia in 1989, when Sheyla was four. Just like many immigrants, her parents worked hard at their blue-collar jobs to give a better life for their kids.

Her mother developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from working for years in a factory putting together catalogues. (It’s when the nerve in the wrist is damaged because of repetitive tasks by the hand. The muscle damage causes weakness in the hand and fingers.)

As a Bosnian immigrant, Sheyla didn’t like how people in Austria expected her to work blue collar jobs. So, at 19 she packed her bags and moved to Canada on her own to study kinesiology.

“I found it difficult to do what I wanted to do there. In Canada, it’s more open. I’d rather stay here and see where it takes me.”

She recalls a time as a kid, when all the girls were saying how they wanted to marry Hulk Hogan. But Sheyla would always say how she wanted to be like him. She starts laughing as she tells me this. She wanted to be strong just like him.

And that’s something that Sheyla realized was lacking in her life- a female role model.

“I’m so upset because as a Bosnian I would always try to find a female Bosnian role model and it’s so hard to come across one. I can’t wait to be that for some young Bosnian girl.”

But in terms of the near future, this summer she plans on volunteering at the hospital in Strasbourg again. Last summer she was there assisting with heart surgery.

And this year? Maybe some gynaecology.

“I can’t wait to watch some live birth,” she grins.

One thought on “Breaking all barriers

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