Meet the woman giving newcomers, international students a platform to shape N.S.’s green future

Haruka Aoyama remembers being the little girl who went around the house unplugging things from outlets and turning off lights.

Aoyama, who was born and grew up in Japan, didn’t know what climate change meant at the time. But her passion for the environment only grew the more she learned about the world. When she was randomly placed in a sustainability workshop during a summer camp that she attended at the age of 16, Aoyama found her calling.

“It was an aha moment,” she said. “Sustainability fit me well, in the way that I was seeing climate and the world. It’s not only about science, but it’s more about … we have to think about also people and social equity and so on.”

Now in Nova Scotia, Aoyama launched a project to create space for international students, immigrants, refugees, and everyone in between to share their ideas about the future of sustainability and climate change in the province.

“People think it’s one group, but within that there are people coming from different cultures, different countries with different political system, different ideas. … It’s so crucial to collect these stories and experiences,” said Aoyama.

Representation matters

Different cultures, she added, have sustainable practices that Nova Scotia can also benefit from.

As part of the project, called Change Today Change Tomorrow, Aoyama is hosting a panel that will highlight the journey of six newcomers working in Nova Scotia’s sustainability and green sectors. Panelists include Anuj Rana, Lama Farhat, Bryan Maponga, Noreen Mabiza, Elissama Menezes, and Manaf Mansour. The panel will be held online on Saturday, July 17, at 10 a.m.

As someone who came to Canada as an international student, Aoyama said it was difficult for her to find a role model in the fields she is passionate about. She later understood that her struggle could be because she didn’t know of any newcomer leaders in whom she could see her world view reflected.

Six newcomers will talk about their experience working in Nova Scotia’s green sector on a panel Aoyama is hosting Saturday.

Aoyama said she hoped the panel will help inspire young newcomers and connect them to people in the environment and sustainability sectors who are also newcomers and have similar lived experiences.

“It’s really important to have representation so that younger people can envision, or they can know, where they might want to go or who they might want to be.”

A comfortable space

Aoyama is also holding small discussion sessions where people can talk about a topic of their choice related to sustainability and the environment.

“Something I learned in my past four years (at Dalhousie University), is that not everybody has the same way of expressing and sharing things.”

Some people, for example, come from a culture where they’re not encouraged to share their opinions and might need more time to think before speaking up. Aoyama experienced that firsthand when she started school at Dalhousie University.

“Talking in class was very difficult. It didn’t naturally happen for me. That’s why I needed those deeper conversations, like one on one or like, or through writing, to express my thoughts,” she said.

 The small discussion groups are meant to create a comfortable environment where people can share their opinions and take ownership of the conversation.

“There is a stigma around international students, like, people tend to think that they’re just rich people who come here and contribute to the housing market here. It’s not, it’s not the case.

“We’re not just here to come and just leave. So many people are going to be future permanent residents. I think we can be part of this community.” – Haruka Aoyama.

Roadblocks for international students

Aoyama studied political science and environment sustainability and society at Dalhousie University and dreamed about working in the sustainability or green sectors.

But she soon learned that there’s a rough road ahead for international students to work in these sectors.

Like many students interested in environment and sustainability, Aoyama tried finding a summer internship through the Clean Leadership Summer Internships Program. She was disappointed to know that she was not eligible because she was an international student.

“There are so many companies accepting interns through this (program). So, when the door is shut towards this program, there are no other organizations or companies left in the green sector,” she said.

Her attempts to find a job in the sector after graduating were also unsuccessful. She finally landed a job, although in another field, as a legislative assistant at the Halifax Regional Municipality.

A conversation with a friend helped Aoyama realize that she could still contribute to environment and sustainability in the province if she created her own initiative.

Creating a unique path

Aoyama started volunteering with the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation’s (ACIC) Youth Advisory Council and later participated in Spur Change, an initiative funded by Global Affairs Canada.

The initiative provides international and Canadian young people from across the country with support and skills training to allow them to engage the public on issues related to the to the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Aoyama knew she wanted to create a space to talk about sustainability and the environment but wasn’t sure where to start. She said the program put her on the right track to bring her ideas to life.

Around the same time, Nova Scotia was offering funding for groups to facilitate discussions with diverse communities about fighting climate change and growing the clean economy.

When Aoyama heard of the opportunity, she immediately applied for the funding. The funding she got is being used to support the project, including developing a website and compensating the panelists.

“So many things just happened at the right time … I’m doing (the work) and learning at the same time.”

Aoyama will be sharing the stories she gets from the panel and discussion groups with the province, but will not include people’s names or any identifying information, she said.

The province says feedback will help further develop goals under the Sustainable Development Goals Act and assist in developing the Climate Change Plan for Clean Growth. Consutations end on July 27.

Aoyama, who will soon be starting her permanent residency application, urged the government to create more opportunities for newcomers, immigrants, and especially international students, to work and shape a sustainable future in Nova Scotia.

“There is a stigma around international students, like, people tend to think that they’re just rich people who come here and contribute to the housing market here. It’s not, it’s not the case.

“We’re not just here to come and just leave. So many people are going to be future permanent residents. I think we can be part of this community.”

For more information on Aoyama’s project and to register for the panel and discussion groups, visit or follow them on Instagram @changetodaychangetomorrowns

Nebal Snan is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government.


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