He stepped foot in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces, speaking a foreign language. He had left behind everything he had ever known for one purpose – to build a new home in Canada.
As a foriegn-trained electrical engineer, Waseem hoped to go to school and build on his engineering degree. But the little money he made as a security guard went straight to covering the bills – rent, food, clothes for the kids.
He learned that his family would be moving into a new home, in a place called Alexandra Park.
Making new friends and neighbours
The day Waseem moved into Vanauley Street, he knew things would be different.
He quickly made friends with a neighbour, Mustafa, who introduced him to the neighbourhood and invited him to attend a local community meeting. Waseem was struck by the diversity of the neighbourhood and how close-knit everyone was.
"There were kids and families and teens and seniors, there was every kind of race and religion you can think of," he said. "I thought, 'This is what Canada truly is.'"
As Waseem became more and more involved in the community, he learned about the Atkinson Co-op
, a non-profit housing co-operative that allows residents to lead and self-manage the development of the Alexandra Park community. Mustafa encouraged Waseem to become a member of the co-op's Board of Directors.
"The residents really welcomed me in. We would organize community celebrations - Christmas, Black History Month, Diwali, Eid, Canada Day - and the whole neighbourhood would come out and celebrate together," he said.
"I've always thought of Alex Park like a bouquet of different flowers. We all come from different backgrounds, different cultures, we speak different languages, we follow different religions. But together, we make something beautiful," he said.
Left: Waseem poses with a resident at a community celebration at Alexandra Park. Right: Waseem shares a selfie with MPP Adam Vaughan at an Eid celebration.
Soon, Waseem's youngest son Humza began following in his father's footsteps, taking an interest in community initiatives and events.
"I encouraged him to become a youth member on the Board of Directors. I wanted him to give back to his community, to learn about the struggles of others and work to help find a solution," said Waseem.
For the first time since they arrived to Canada, Waseem and his family felt like they were part of a true community.
Revitalization ushers in a new era at Alex ParkIn 2009, residents at Alexandra Park and former city councillor Adam Vaughan approached Toronto Community Housing about transforming the neighbourhood into a Revitalization site. Based on the recent Revitalization work in Regent Park, the idea was to build new housing units and amenities that would connect the Alexandra Park community with the neighbourhoods around it.
The revitalization project would replace or refurbish more than 806 rent-geared-to-income units, add more than 1,500 market condo units and build state-of-the-art amenities including a new public park, basketball courts and retail space.
Artist renderings of the new townhomes at Alexandra Park.
As Vice President of the Atkinson Board of Directors, Waseem worked closely with the Alexandra Park residents, Toronto Community Housing staff, the Atkinson Co-Op, and city councillors throughout the revitilization process.
As plans for the re-development took off, Waseem and his fellow residents wanted to make sure the revitalization met the needs of the community.
"Many residents were hesitant of the change. There were residents who had lived here for 30 years, since these buildings first went up, and they were a bit scared about how the revitalization would impact their life. But I give credit to TCHC and Atkinson Co-op for easing their fears and keeping them informed throughout the process," he said.
Toronto Community Housing staff lead a consultation meeting with Alexandra Park residents in 2013.
The working group also gave their input on how the new townhomes should be designed, based on the needs of residents.
"Some people preferred washrooms on the main floor to accommodate for senior residents and people in wheelchairs. Some residents wanted an open concept kitchen, others wanted a separate kitchen."
Waseem takes a tour of the very first model home at Alexandra Park with MPP Adam Vaughan, city councillor Joe Cressy and Toronto Community Housing staff.
Waseem says the true heart of the process was based on community collaboration.
"That's the beauty of this revitalization, we came together, we shared our ideas and created something that everyone was happy with," he said.
A bittersweet momentAs part of the redevelopment, Waseem and his family were relocated to a townhouse at Vanauley Street. The move was a bittersweet one for Waseem.
"It was hard because on the one hand, you're being uprooted, you're leaving the home you've built, you're moving away from neighbours you've known for years. But on the other hand, you're also excited to move into your new home and start fresh," he said.
Demolition on the townhouses began in February 2014 and developers began construction on the new townhomes in December. Over the next two and a half years, Waseem saw his community transform before his eyes.
"New buildings were going up, new streets were being created, parks and community centres were coming to life. It felt like a completely different neighbourhood," he said.
Time-lapse video of Phase 1 of the Alexandra Park revitilization demolition.
A new home, a new startAfter countless consultations, months of construction and a mountain of boxes, the big day had finally arrived.
In August, Waseem and his family were handed the keys to their brand new townhome.
"We were so excited when we first walked in. We had bigger rooms, new exhaust fans, central air and big windows. It was open and welcoming, it was the kind of home we've always wanted," he said.
"We have such pride in this home. I went with my kids to IKEA to buy new tables and furniture and I could see in their eyes how excited they were - that makes me so happy," he said.
Waseem and his wife share how they plan to make their new house a home.
The impact of the revitalization has reached beyond just Waseem's home, he says the revitalization has really brought the community together.
"The best part is the way it's united Alex Park. I began seeing and meeting new faces, people who weren't really involved in the community before were now taking part, coming out to events, meetings, and committees. It's really helped bond us together," he said.
Sitting in his new living room, overlooking Vanauley Street, Waseem thinks back to those first few days in Canada.
"I think about how much we struggled and how difficult it was," he said. "Now my kids are all well-educated and attending university and I look at this nice new home and it makes me proud. I'm thankful to TCHC and the co-op for helping me build a real home for me and my kids."
- Visit the Alexandra Park revitilization page for the latest news and updates on the project
- A webcam has been set up to show progress in Phase One of the Revitalization. Follow this link to see live images from Alexandra Park.
- Sales for SQ, the first market condominium building, launched in November 2013. If you are interested in finding out more about purchasing a unit in this development, please contact Tridel.