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Q & A with Halim Amini: a real estate agent and Toronto's one-man mental health industry

"Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. The American novelist had never met Torontonian Halim Amini, but the latter's story plays out in classic elegiac form.  Amini lost his oldest son on May 3, 2002. The death -- a suicide -- has sparked remarkable works from the Afghan immigrant, as he bore down to figure out the causes of the tragedy and help others in similar distress. The emotional work and journey led to ground-breaking solutions, prompting him to offer a variety of services including a youth radio show, TV program, and non-profit counseling centre called SAFE, all targeting the Afghan diaspora. Much of this work is funded by his day-job as an award-winning real-estate agent. Mr. Amini spoke to Yonge Street from his York Mills office.

Alexandra Shimo: I understand that you taught mechanical engineering at the University of Kabul before you came to Canada. Why did you go into real estate?

Halim Amini: Well, I faced the challenges that many immigrants face when they come to Canada -- a lack of Canadian experience. At first, I tried to get a job in my field but I had a family to support so when that wasn't successful, I tried many other odd jobs. I worked in pizza delivery, in a factory and drove a taxi, etc. I got into real estate in 1989, but I never thought it would be permanent. I stayed because I was good at it, and it has allowed me to fund my volunteer work.  

Much of the work that you do in the community, whether it's the TV hosting, or counseling, is inspired and named after your son Sabawoon. Tell me about him.

He was the oldest of my three boys. He was a very kind, gracious person. He was always giving money to the homeless and very good with little kids.  He started having problems in grade seven -- he was bullied and he was losing interest in school. It got much worse in grade nine -- he wasn't sleeping, and he was very moody and distant. We tried to see a counselor and it took eight months. The first psychiatrist did not work out -- he was extremely dismissive, but eventually, we managed to see someone who listened to our issues and started him on anti-depressants. With the psychological help, and a lot of family support, he got a lot better -- he graduated from high school as an Ontario scholar, and started at the University of Toronto in computer engineering.  

Things got a lot worse in the second year of university. He decided to take some time out, but then he found he was caught in limbo as the university would not accept him back into the same program. He moved back home and took odd jobs; it was a very big blow to someone who had always been a perfectionist. On May 3, 2002, two cops knocked on the door. They said Sabawoon had been killed in a train accident. As soon as he said that, I knew it was suicide. I thought that's it, he's gone.

How did you cope?

During the grieving process, hundreds of Afghanis came to my home to comfort me. It's part of our culture and tradition. I was very open about what had happened to my son, and as I talked about his problems with depression, many admitted they were going through the same thing. A lot of it has to do with cultural clashes, employment issues, loss of status, and post-traumatic stress from the war. Many were ashamed of the stigma of suicide -- pretending the deaths were accidents and were only opening up now. I realized that this was a much bigger problem than just Sabawoon.

So how did you get involved in radio?

A few months later, I did a call-in show and talked about Sabawoon and the response was overwhelming. We were inundated with calls. People wanted to talk about many of the issues that were facing the community -- cultural integration issues, job difficulties, religious schisms. The Afghan community has a strong culture, and the kids often felt caught in the middle between western and Afghan values. After that, the host, Nasir Khalid, offered to give me some time on his show. Every week, I had a 40-minute session on Fairchild Radio where I talked about these issues and brought in experts.

You started a non-profit counseling centre for the Afghan community. Tell me about that.

That evolved out of the radio show. It's called the Sabawoon Afghan Family Education and Counselling Center (SAFE) and it provides free family and individual guidance and support. The centre is run entirely by volunteers, including trained physicians. Mental health is badly underserviced in Canada and so this allowed the community to take control and provide a grass roots, culturally-competent solution.

Tell me about your TV show.

That's a new venture -- I've switched from radio to TV to reach a bigger audience. We air on the satellite channel -- Ariana International -- the show is called Sabawoon, and it airs on Thursdays from 8 – 9 pm. It's a call-in show in Pashto and Farsi. We discuss global issues and get questions from Afghani immigrants about youth, family, job, and mental health issues. We have a worldwide audience -- people call in from across Canada, United States, the U.K., Australia, Germany, etc. It's great because the issues are highly specific, yet they also traverse world borders.

And what do you hope people will take from all your different ventures?

I think it's very important to reach out, to figure out the services available in your community and make use of them. In Toronto, there are grass-roots solutions, but there's also The Counselling Foundation of Canada and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, for example. Many Afghans have come from wealthy backgrounds and it can be overwhelming to start again in a completely different culture. While one's circumstances are largely beyond control, one's own peace of mind is not. Opening up and reaching out helps, as does a positive attitude and acceptance.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Alexandra Shimo is an author and journalist based on the Ossington strip. She has lived in several cities, including London, New York and  Washington D.C. and is now proud to call the T-dot her home.

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