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The focus of ASIA’s education: residents of Chinatown

Vancouver AIDS non-profit reaches out to Asian community

It is well-known that British Columbia is home to many Asian Canadians. More than 27,000 people (PDF) immigrated to the…

By Brooke Hykaway , in Health , on October 30, 2009 Tags: , ,

It is well-known that British Columbia is home to many Asian Canadians. More than 27,000 people (PDF) immigrated to the province in 2007, with less than 600 settling outside Vancouver.

A much less known fact is that this community is one of the most vulnerable ethnic groups to contract HIV and AIDS, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.

The focus of ASIA's education: residents of Chinatown
The focus of ASIA's education: Residents of Chinatown

The Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS (ASIA) is working hard to lower that statistic.

“We create information in different Asian languages because there’s lots of literature with regards to AIDS and HIV prevention, but if you’re a new immigrant it’s not going to help you because you can’t even speak English,” said staff Karyn Calvez.

The society helps the Asian community in Vancouver through its different programs. The ASIA Line is a hotline that provides multilingual confidential support regarding sexual health.

The ORCHID program is an outreach initiative that helps indoor sex workers and educates them about the virus and how to protect themselves.

Men Who Have Sex With Men is an eight-week, peer-support group that establishes a community to discuss the obstacles and dispel the stigmas surrounding homosexuality and HIV and AIDS.

Asian Injection Drug Users is another outreach program located in the downtown Eastside and Chinatown that helps promote the safest practices for those individuals.

These programs were created in direct response to their need. Men who have sex with men are the top risk category for those testing positive for both HIV and AIDS in British Columbia.

Injection drug users follow close behind, accounting for the top risk category for women who test positive for HIV and AIDS.

Fund-raising event

The society is a nonprofit organization and was founded in 1995. Their mission is to overcome the language barriers that exist for health education faced by those in the downtown community.

“There’s a lot of AIDS and HIV organizations out there in the Lower Mainland, but I don’t think there’s very many that are culturally specific,” said Calvez.

The society hosts one event a year, Celebrity Dim Sum, to raise funds. The 3rd annual event took place on Oct. 24 at the Sun Sui Wah Restaurant on Main Street.

Celebrity dim sum spokesperson Fred Lee
Celebrity Dim Sum spokesperson Fred Lee

CBC Radio’s Rick Cluff hosted a live auction that brought people together to raise funds for an important cause. The event also featured a silent auction and live entertainment from Symone, known as Vancouver’s First Lady of Glam.

CBC Radio’s Fred Lee and Riaz Meghji of Breakfast Television took control of the crowd. The duo co-hosted the event, and local  journalism, radio, and television personalities served each course of dim sum.

Lee’s involvement is crucial to its continued success. “He has been an integral part of Celebrity Dum Sum event from the start, and continues to give so generously his time and expertise,” said Suji Moon, executive director the society.

“He is a magnet,” said co-host Meghji.

A crucial message remained at the heart of the festivities. “We are the face of AIDS,” said Lee. “I invite you to continue the dialogue because that’s the only way we’re going to beat this thing.”

Calvez was really proud of the turnout. “It’s definitely gotten bigger every year. There were a hundred guests or so the first year, one hundred and fifty the second year, and this year we hoped to peak two hundred.”

Reliance on volunteers

The society is aggressively promoting its message to the public.

“The process leading up to Celebrity Dim Sum, really pushing it en masse, is different,” said Calvez. “Just this year, reading the list of our donors, there’s a bunch that normally wouldn’t even know who we were.”

Calvez hopes that the success of this event will translate into the new year when ASIA will be celebrating its 15th anniversary.

The society is located in downtown Vancouver. It is manned by only a handful of full-time staff who heavily rely on volunteers.

“We have more volunteers than staff, like most non-profits,” said Calvez.

These people do more than offer their time, as they must be specifically trained.

“It’s very specific; for the ASIA line they need to speak an Asian language as well as English,” said Calvez.

Other programs are more demanding of the volunteers.

“With the ORCHID program, they need to speak other languages and also be comfortable going into a massage parlour,” said Calvez. “You can’t say that’s everyone’s cup of tea.”

ASIA’s 3rd Annual Celebrity Dim Sum raised nearly $15,000.

(Photo of Chinatown courtesy of Flickr user merlinprincesse. Photo of Fred Lee  courtesy of Flickr user Urban Mixer.)