IMAGINE BEING TOLD you must pack up your belongings and move to another country. You may not speak the language, know the customs, or have a single friend or family member there to guide you, but regardless of the circumstances, you’re going. For some people, leaving their home country is a welcome—and maybe even celebrated event—but for others, it’s a scary and isolating experience. University of Ottawa students recount making the move from their home countries to Canada.
A vacation town from hell
“WHO THE HELL lives in houses?” I thought upon entering a suburb of Toronto for the first time in my life. I was almost 11 years old and in shock that ordinary people could live in houses on a day-to-day basis.
In my hometown of Kiev, Ukraine, there are high-rises filled with residents everywhere. If you live in a house, you’re either a thief, a politician, or most likely both. Cottage homes for getaways are common, but we only used ours on special occasions and vacations, which was why moving to Canada felt more like a holiday than a stressful experience—at least for the first month.
Reality punched my family and me in the face when we moved from Toronto to Ottawa. For the first while, my mom, stepdad, and I shared an air mattress in a tiny room that smelled like cigarette smoke, Febreeze, and wet dog. My mom had to bike five kilometres to her job at Tim Hortons—apparently her speech therapist degree is worthless in Canada.
When the hellish summer was over, I was greeted by spawns of Tartarus themselves—my new classmates. For the next two years, my mom and her husband worked multiple jobs and saved up pennies for much-needed Ikea furniture, while I buried my nose in books in an attempt to get away from constant teasing and pranks brought on by my bad English and high marks. Canada was not the vacation it was originally made out to be.
I’ve been in Canada for nine years, and now that the nightmare is over, I think it is a great country. Once my family and I became accustomed to speaking English and Canadian traditions, we started slowly but surely getting back on our feet, appreciating the immigration instead of damning our stupid idea to move in the first place.
The experience taught me to try to talk to outcasts, help those in need, and learn how to fight, all of which I’m thankful for. After all, it’s hard getting through life without throwing a few punches, even if learning how to battle means taking a beating first.
At 10 years old, most children are creating lifelong friendships at school, going to summer camp, and spending the rest of their free time with family and relatives. I, on the other hand, was saying goodbye to nearly everyone I knew and moving thousands of miles away from my home.
My family background is a bit like a Rubik’s cube: My mother was born and raised in the Czech Republic and my father’s side of the family hails from the unstable country of Syria. Since neither of their countries were optimal for learning in the ‘70s, they both immigrated to Scotland. It was there they studied, met, married, and had my brother and me. My childhood, however, was mostly spent in Kuwait and Bahrain.
Everything there was picture-perfect and my fondest childhood memories come from that period of my life. That utopia was shattered in the early ‘90s when the Iraqi bombs fell during Operation Desert Storm, which is now referred to as the first Gulf War. It was clear our family would have to relocate, and for reasons still unknown to me, Canada was chosen to be the next promised land.
My first impressions of Canada were rather unpleasant. Moving from the warm climate of the Bahraini desert to the bitter cold streets of Montreal would upset any child. I can clearly recall the weeks of jet lag my brother and I faced as neither of us wanted to accept Canadian time. He was a few years younger than me and adapted better to the new surroundings, whereas I resented every minute of it.
The citizens spoke English with an entirely different accent from the British one I grew up hearing, and there was, of course, another foreign language in Canada that perplexed me. Bill 101 was in full swing and I was suddenly thrust into the world of speaking French. Learning a third language by force vexed me, and although it wasn’t my parents’ choice, I blamed them relentlessly.
It would take many years for me to realize the true value of being trilingual and to ask forgiveness from my parents for the endless tantrums I threw. Obviously my views on this country have dramatically altered. My desolation has turned to elation and I could not imagine myself being happier in any other country.
From the farmlands to the capital
After I finished high school in my home country of Nigeria, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Canada, the United States, or the United Kingdom. It was not a difficult decision to choose going to Canada over the other countries, as I had heard so many good stories about Canada and I wanted to come see it for myself. My friends in Canada couldn’t stop buzzing about the place and all said it was going to be the best place for me to study, which boosted my confidence in my choice.
My dad was scared I was going to be lonely in this really cold country, given I have no family here, but he finally obliged and let me start the admission process and my visa application.
I was admitted to a school in Drumheller, Alta., but my flight was scheduled to land in Vancouver. I was going to spend three days in the city before moving on to Drumheller. Vancouver is a big city and it wasn’t as cold as all the naysayers were making it out to be. I made a joke about the surprisingly warm climate to one of the women I met there and she responded, “Just wait until you get to Alberta.” I must confess this scared me a bit.
I eventually made my way to Calgary and realized what everyone was saying about the cold was true. Despite the freezing temperature, I couldn’t wait to get to my school and see what it was like. As we started the two-hour drive, the houses began to get smaller and smaller and then eventually gave way to farmlands and lots of cows. At this point, I started to get annoyed, because I didn’t want to go study in the middle of nowhere.
I found Drumheller to be a small and quiet town, and it took me a while to make friends. Eventually I met some very awesome people, scored a place on the city’s soccer team, and won some competitions playing with them. In general, I would say Calgarians are very lovely people who smile when they meet you on the street.
I eventually decided to move to Ottawa, and living here is very different from life in Drumheller. Everybody in Ottawa is serious minded and does their own thing, and people rarely smile at you on the streets unless they are from other provinces. The city itself seems kind of serious too, but perhaps that’s simply because it’s the capital city.
Despite some initial difficulties, after living here for a couple of years, I still feel I made the right decision to come to Canada—I’m loving it!
Reality sinks in
Saying I was excited to leave Nigeria, the country where I spent the better part of my life, understates the feeling I had when my mum told me I would be studying in Canada. I had seen brochures of the high school I would be attending in Hamilton, Ont., and it looked beautiful, neat, and rosy compared to the dominant atmosphere of the Third World country I was accustomed to.
I finally got my belongings together, shopped for new clothing, and boarded the flight. I landed in Toronto and was not disappointed—I was well pleased with all I saw. But that feeling did not last for long.
My uncle drove my dad and me to Hamilton, and while driving, reality set in. We went from skyscrapers to ancient homes, from freeways to one-carriage roads, and from thousands of young people flooding the street to strings of seniors—and if there were young people around, they looked like they lived on the streets.
My high school was a private one, and so you could say I had a “better life” in Hamilton, but I felt constrained living in the school’s residence because of the curfews. There goes my freedom, or so I thought.
I remember being a little shy speaking, because my accent was very different from Canadians. Thankfully, my private school was made up of about 99 per cent immigrants anyways.
The harsh Canadian weather was one thing that had me second-guessing my decision to come to here as opposed to the United States or the United Kingdom. To this day, I still sometimes think about the choice I made, but then I remind myself you cannot have it all.
I was accepted into the University of Ottawa and then more of reality sunk in. I realized that unlike the treatment I got at home—never working nor worrying about my living conditions—I had to do everything by myself in Ottawa.
During the second semester of my first year at university, I remember breaking down at the International Office, wailing about how I could not get used to this kind of life. Hustling and bustling alone in a city where it does not even seem like anyone else has your good at heart was exhausting. At that point, I realized the community culture of my home country was vastly different from the “every man for himself” civilization practised on the Western side of the world.
From the Caribbean to Canada
When people from the Caribbean think of Canada, they imagine endless miles of icy tundra, biting wind, and blowing snow. In late December 2001, I was able to verify this for the international community. My flight from Trinidad and Tobago touched down—nay, skidded—onto the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during an evening snow squall.
I was 11 years old. My dad’s work decided to relocate him to some desolate retirement community in southwestern Ontario, cleverly nicknamed “Chemical Valley.”
I knew I wouldn’t adjust well to Canada. I hate the cold and I have no love for hockey—which as I understood was considered nothing short of treason in Canada.
Island life is warm and tropical and we lived by three Cs: Calypso, Carnival, and coconuts. You can understand why an 11-year-old boy burst into tears on American Airlines when people started to step off the plane and into the icy Canadian wasteland.
“Meh not goin’ out there, meh go dead! We all go’ freeze and dead,” I said.
My mother—the Wanda Sykes of the West Indies—grabbed me by the ear and pulled me to my feet.
“Me go’ stay on dis plane and let it take meh home!”
But it was no use. Sinister passengers snickered and stared as my mother led me off the plane, her carry-on bag in one hand and my arm in the other. I screamed and tried to fight back, but Ms. Sykes was having none of it. As I remember, she heartlessly threw me into the Canadian winter, laughing maniacally all the while.
It’s been just over 11 years that I’ve been in this country and I haven’t been warm since.
Not in a fridge box
I AM NOT one for change. I was so stressed about graduating high school and starting university that I made back-up plans to live in a fridge box. You would think switching countries would be an even bigger deal for me, but surprisingly, it wasn’t.
I took the news of us moving from my mother country of Syria to Canada pretty well. Thinking back, I was mostly excited to board a plane, which in the end was not very exciting at all. It was like riding a bus but with people serving you food and alcohol. Not too shabby, especially when your parents are paying for the ticket.
My first impression of Canada can be summarized in one word: big. Everyone had a lot of personal space, they were smiling, and the supermarkets had aisles dedicated for chips. It was meant to be and I quickly fell in love.
When school began I quickly learned my assumption of classes beginning at nine a.m. was wrong—I was late for my first day. Things only got worse from there. I wasn’t wearing the required uniform and my guidance counsellor singled me out in front of my homeroom class.
When the lunch bell rang, I found an empty table and ate by myself. When a group of people I perceived to be gangsters approached me, adrenaline pumped through my veins and I prepared myself for the worst.
The danger soon passed. Brian, their leader, asked me to make a fist—an usual request I carried out with hesitation. He then proceeded to make a fist of his own and bump mine. He called this action “props”, which I later learned is an alternative to shaking hands.
I felt like I was starting to fit in, which made me very proud. Brian offered me advice—he told me to buy a better jacket and said a PlayStation would be my best friend during a Canadian winter. He was right about that.