Tired of the bitter cold? Torontonians, here’s something to look forward to this spring, summer and fall: fresh, piping hot, straight-from-the-tandoor oven naan at R.V. Burgess Park. Last fall, a hardworking group of women from Thorncliffe Park unveiled North America’s first tandoor oven in the park.
by MARITES N. SISON
In 2008, Sabina Ali moved to Toronto with her husband and four kids. She wasted no time. She struck a friendship with a group of women she met at Thorncliffe Park’s R.V. Burgess Park and together they formed the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, (TPWC) a not-for-profit group that has since received support from various foundations.
The women had had enough of seeing their children play in a rundown park and wanted instead to “build a beautiful and engaging place for families and children.” They formed a formidable group – an ayurvedic practitioner from Pakistan, a science teacher from Afghanistan, a Torontonian and teacher originally from Leaside, an environmental health worker from Bangladesh and Ali, who has a master’s degree in human resources.
Five years later, due largely to their efforts in lobbying city and parks officials and building partnerships with civic-minded groups, R.V. Burgess became the first park in Canada to be named a “Frontline Park” by City Parks Alliance, an independent group of urban parks administrators and advocates across America. R.V. Burgess Park was selected for recognition “because it exemplifies the power of partnerships to create and maintain urban parks that build community and make our cities sustainable and vibrant.” From a park where children had to line up to get on rickety swings, R.V. Burgess had been transformed into a vibrant community hub with new greenery, playground and splash pad for children, a soccer field, new picnic tables and benches, a community garden, weekly summer bazaar and winter carnival.
Last September, the committee opened North America’s first tandoor oven in the park [See video here]. Ali, project coordinator for the committee, spoke to The Origami about the significance of this oven to Thorncliffe Park, a densely populated, low-income neighbourhood in the city’s central east area, which is home to many recent immigrants, a large number of them Muslims from South Asia. She also talks about the power of community building and why it is important to cities like Toronto – home to 2.6 million people spread out in 140 neighbourhoods.
When we meet up with Ali late afternoon last fall, she had just finished submitting another grant application for the committee and was experiencing that strange combination of relief and anxiety. It is a yearly ritual that groups like the TPWC must undergo in order to continue their work.
Ali’s energy for her work is palpable in her demeanour and in the aesthetics of her tiny office, which is crammed with photographs taken with community members, colourful children’s artwork and flyers from various events. Ali has soft, lovely features and an easy smile, a winning combination to begin with in her work, which involves constant networking with a diverse group of people. But what makes her a compelling ambassadress really is the sense that one easily gets when talking to her: she is proud of her community and its diversity, but she also wants it to remember that it belongs to a much wider circle that is Toronto and Canada.
Q: What was the impetus for having a tandoor oven in the park?
A: The idea came when we were discussing types of cooking fires within the community members from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. We’re a multi-ethnic group. Everyone was sharing their practices…the most common thing was the tandoor oven. Other parks have a pizza oven. We thought with Thorncliffe being a diverse neighbourhood, and a predominantly South Asian community, it could be something new in the city. People throughout the GTA would learn about a different oven. We believe that food brings everyone together.
Q: What does the tandoor oven represent for these cultures?
A: In Afghanistan, they have it in homes. They light it so it warms up the house. There are different types and kinds of tandoor ovens. What we have is a fabricated one that we imported from India. It’s very challenging to make the tandoor; it requires special skills. It’s actually a clay pot with a steel enclosure; it’s insulated so that the heat doesn’t escape. It has a lid and a vent at the bottom, where we pick up the charcoal.
This tandoor oven has wheels at the bottom so that when we have programming we can roll [it] out of the shed. And after, we’ll clean up and roll it back [in the steel shed] and secure it – to avoid vandalism and for safety reasons.
You need to have certain skills to operate it. You put the dough in the walls of the clay pot.
Q: Are there places in Asia were there are community tandoors, similar to what you’re doing here?
A: This is the new model. In our home countries there are bakeries were people can take the dough and have it cooked there, and they will charge them a nominal amount.
My mom used to make these baked cookies – of flour, saffron, sugar and dried fruits and clarified butter. When you are making a small ball out of it, your hands are shiny because of the butter you’re using; we used to collect almond leaves and put the dough and gently flatten it. We used to garnish it with almonds, pistachios… my mom used to put everything on the trays [and take them to the bakery]. She would rent that [bakery] space and tell them. I just want [it baked] light brown…it’s very different. I tried making it in my house but it’s not the same.
Q: How do you plan to use the tandoor oven in the park?
A: We will be having the programming of using the tandoor, along with the market, in spring, summer and fall. It will be an opportunity to bring in more people who are interested in looking at it, to bring their children to see how bread is being made in their home countries.
It will be a kind of fundraising for us as well, with very nominal costs. We will provide training for women to learn how to use it. Everyone’s excited about it in this neighbourhood. But you need certain skills and techniques. You can burn your hand and sometimes the bread falls in the fire. You have to be very gentle…otherwise you may damage the clay pot.
When we thought about this oven, we applied for a grant and raised funds for that. The city also partnered with us.
The insurance is quite high (because) it’s life threatening. If something happens, you’re liable. There’s a checklist for us to see if everything’s fine.
Q: You must have considered that before deciding to go forward. What made you decide to go ahead?
A: When we started as a group, we were just doing the cleanups and trying to make the park a better place for everyone. Then we introduced the recreational programs. And then we thought, “How do we support these women?”
Most of the women are stay-at-home and their priority is their kids. They don’t have time for themselves. This is place where they can come with their families, have time for themselves, learn and meet others. It’s good for their health and wellbeing. We want these things to continue in Thorncliffe Park and we’re (always) thinking of ideas on how to make it a more vibrant and engaging place.
The park has become a community hub, especially in spring and summer time – when we have the market. It completely transforms on Fridays, you’ll see from the traffic how heavily packed it is. We have arts activities happening with the kids. Women sell clothing, jewellery that are not readily available in Canadian stores; we have vendors selling food cooked in (Toronto) Public Health-certified kitchens, we have fresh produce stalls. We invite artists from the community to come and perform for the kids. At the end of the performances, the kids clean up and we give them some small incentives for their hard work. Kids and adults feel a sense of belonging in the neighbourhood. This belongs to you and you have to take care of this.
We knew the consequences, the insurance and all and having to convince the city of Toronto. Even having the market every year – it happens and it looks really nice. But what I have to go through each year is a bit challenging. I really go through a lot of stress during the opening of the market. I attend the meetings, I have to go through the same cycle, explain the same thing…
Q: What do you need to do?
A: I have to convince the city that these are not businesses; we are building communities and supporting local enterprise. If we don’t give them opportunities, how will these newcomers feel confident?
The market provides a platform for these women – many come from countries where English is a second language. Through the market they’re able to break the barriers – they’re able to motivate themselves, develop self-esteem, gain confidence.
At the next level I take them to other markets in the GTA so they can gain exposure to the broader community. There’s an incubation period where they participate in a bigger market for a period of time like eight to 12 months. It’s a different experience for them [having to deal with] the clients, the quantity and quality of food they make, their connection with the other farmers. And when they’re making good money, they’ll see that and it’s formalized. It’s one step at a time and eventually they will be self-employed and be part of the local business in the neighbourhood.
We’re running a catering group as well, with our different connections and partners at the city level and at grassroots level. Whenever they need food they call me and I make the orders to the different vendors. I make sure I give equal opportunities to everyone. Whoever is good at what and what the client’s requirements are… They get the cheques right away.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your community garden?
A: It’s in the park. We have 20 family plots and a small area for the children’s garden. There are drop-in classes during spring, summer, and fall. We close in September and reopen in April. This fall we had 30 classes; we have a strong partnership with teachers who incorporate it as part of their curriculum. One class taught planting and weeding and how food doesn’t come from a grocery store but is grown. It’s interesting how the kids enjoyed the soil and the produce. One class was about diversity and the teacher matched learning about the diversity of plants to explain the diversity of people.
We also use the ravines in the Don Valley; it’s one of our biggest concerns because people throw garbage there. We take adults and kids for guided walks – we do it with the school and we have organized a walk with Toronto Field Naturalists…
We really want people to use the ravines and unpaved ways of the trail and explore how beautiful it is. We can see the fork – how the West Don and Taylor creek, merge and form the east Don. It’s awesome. I really want people to see the wealth in Thorncliffe Park, to see where it is on the map and to see how we’re all connected.
Q: Why such passion for community building?
I just love doing it. At the end of the market when the vendors come, shake hands with me and tell me – “Sabina, that was really wonderful, thanks for the opportunity,” I think that’s the satisfaction. By bringing a little smile on their face and doing a little bit of positive change in their life, I really feel satisfied. I should thank my family. I have four kids and they’re so cooperative. They understand my passion. A community developer’s job is 24/7; you have to come in on Saturdays, Sundays. But I love doing it.