Confessions from Cape Town

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Editorial by Kulsum Khan 

“Why on earth would you want to leave Canada and all that you know behind to participate in an International internship?”

This was my father’s reaction a year and a half ago when, upon graduating with a Bachelor of Social Work from Ryerson University, I told him about my plans to search for an international internship opportunity. I was asked the same question by several family members and friends — not one of them understood why this was something I wanted to do.

I was tired of living in my box. I wanted to learn about other cultures and experience life outside of the familiarity of Toronto. As a single, Pakistani, Muslim female, it was not easy convincing my conservative parents that this was viable, but eventually, they learned to support me.

After submitting countless applications and anxiously waiting several months for a response, I was selected for an internship position as a Public Health Researcher at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in Cape Town, South Africa through the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development International Youth Internship Program (IYIP). This program has provided recent graduates with the opportunity to gain work experience, build networks for the past 17 years. Like many other government-funded programs, it’s up for renewal, as funding ends in March 2014.

I had the opportunity to work on several projects, but the one that had the biggest impact on me was the Mitchells Plain project. Mitchells Plain is a large township (a geographic area designated for black or coloured South Africans during apartheid) located on the Cape Flats and was built in the 1970s by the apartheid government. As a direct result of apartheid, most of its residents face a lot of issues with gang violence, drugs, inadequate health care and high unemployment.

I got to see how a discarded metal container normally used to transport materials on trucks was transformed into a colourfully painted community space surrounded by a garden with a stone pathway. The space is now used as a community centre where residents can hold meetings, barbecue — or “braai” as locals call it in Afrikaans. I was inspired by how much collective action, creativity, and hard work can make a huge difference in a community — even if funds and resources are scarce.

In addition to my placement, I was privileged to volunteer as a sexual assault victim’s empowerment program (SAVE) support worker at Cape Mental Health (CMH). CMH is a not for profit agency that offers comprehensive mental health services to Cape Town residents. I was moved by how comfortable the clients felt with me, even though I spoke very little Afrikaans (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages) and was told that my Canadian accent was difficult to understand. However, by the end of my volunteer placement, I finally understood the significance of non-verbal communication and how a language barrier can only hold you back from connecting with people if you choose to let it.

This internship changed my life and challenged me in more ways than one. I came to appreciate the necessities we often take for granted.

Considering how difficult it is being a recent graduate in our current economic climate, maintaining government support for opportunities like these are crucial, as they give Canadian graduates the opportunity to take the first steps towards building their career.


  1. Well done .. Kulsoom We are so proud of you. What i like the most was “Pakistani Muslim girl”. Atleast the world should know that we are not conservative.

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