An Immigrant’s Dream

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Somali Woman at Starbucks, Ottawa (for the record, she caught my eye because she was shouting “no, fuck YOU!” on the phone!)

He was walking fast, hands in pockets, hood on and head down to shield his face from a strong Northern wind that was brining the day’s frigid temperatures to the minus twenties. It was very cold for a season called “early spring” in the rest of the world.

Every few metres, he looked over his shoulder.

I know this peculiar way of walking. I practise it too. It’s the do-I-have-the-time-to-reach-the-next-bus-stop-before-the-bus-comes walk. When the bus is late, as it is often the case in Ottawa, it’s better to get active than to freeze at the bus stop, especially if there is no shelter.

He slowed down.

“Don’t go to the next stop,” I advised. “The bus should be coming in three minutes.”

“Yes?”

I shrugged. “Well, that’s what the schedule says. Can’t promise it’s true but I’m been waiting here for a few minutes and I don’t think I missed it.”

He paused, processing my words, then squinted at the print schedule. He smiled. “I wait.”

So, we waited together in the cold, and because I’m Canadian, I couldn’t help making small talk.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

This was a blunt question. I usually phrase it differently, for example I ask “what’s your background?” to be more politically correct because Canadians come in all shapes, colours and sizes, and chances are, the Black man or the Asian woman has been a citizen of this country for longer than me. But his accent and his behaviour led me to think he was actually a new immigrant and that he wouldn’t find my question too offensive.

He seemed happy I asked. “Somalia,” he replied. “I came here … two months.”

“You arrived two months ago?”

“Yes!”

I looked at him more carefully. He was probably between seventeen and twenty-one. He was tall and lanky with big brown eyes, an easy smile and short hair under his hood. He has several recent but healed scars on his forehead, lighter gashes on his coffee-coloured skin.

“Wow … that must be difficult.”

“Yes,” he nodded. “Winter is cold. But people say spring and summer…” He showed me a thumb up to express enthusiasm. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it would be another two months, at least, for winter to be a distant memory.

“Yes, summer and fall are really nice seasons,” I agreed.

The bus arrived. We got in and moved to the back. We kept on chatting. He seemed to enjoy my English 101 questions.

“Did you come with your family?”

“My grandmother and my sister. My parents … dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you a student?”

“Yes, I’m a student. I study at Albert high school. What is your name?”

“My name is Juliette. And what is yours?”

“My name is Moham— …” he caught himself. “Mike. My name is Mike.”

I nodded. “Nice to meet you. Do you live around here?”

“I live on Caldwell,” he replied.

I know the street. It’s a couple of blocks from the newer residential neighbourhood where I live. Caldwell used to have a terrible reputation in Ottawa. Meth lab? Yep, Caldwell. Shooting? Caldwell. Stabbing? Caldwell. I walk through the area every day, though, and while I can see the recipe for trouble—social housing, new immigrants and unemployed locals, no businesses around but a convenience store whose owner is constantly convinced customers are going to steal from him—I’ve never actually seen any trouble. Ottawa has very high expectations in terms of safety. If you can’t leave your laptop and a suitcase full of gold on the sidewalk, it’s a “tough neighbourhood.”

“What is your dream?” I asked as the bus was approaching our stop.

His face lit up: “I want to go to university and study. Yes, I want that.”

“I hope your dream will come true,” I replied. We parted ways. “Good luck!”

Suddenly, I felt very proud to be Canadian, a country that welcomes the world and where, surely, this young immigrant was going to build a better life, a better future.

And then, I remembered that it’s not all warm fuzzy feelings and arms wide open around here. In Ottawa, a very sedate city by world standards, the Somalian community is often the easy scapegoat. They are among the newest newcomers from this war-torn part of the world few of us understand, they are black, they are Muslim and women often wear the hijab. Sure, they are a few rowdy teens and assholes, much like in every community. But I hear slurs associated to the word “Somali” way too often. This is the uncomfortable truth—yes, racism exists here too.

I don’t know the Somali community well. Many of its members came as refugees and live in Ottawa’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The only “interaction” I had with the community was walking by the Mosque and throwing back a ball to a handful of kids playing soccer while their parents were socializing.

Now, I will remember this young kid, freezing on a cold winter day, bussing between school and home, and his dream—studying and becoming someone.

I hope he becomes someone.

I hope he meets more locals who may see the community differently.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

17 Comments

  1. Martin Penwald on

    Rhaaa, encore un étranger qui vient nous voler le pain de la bouche … Ah, zut, c’est vrai, je suis pas Canadien non plus. Je la refais. Yeah, un nouveau comparse pour voler le pain de la bouche des Canadiens !

    Bon, on déconne, mais un récent sondage indique que 30% des Albertains voterait pour un gros con raciste, inculte, misogyne, ignorant, sexiste, imbécile, xénophobe comme Trump. Notons qu’il y a déjà 24% de votants pour le Wildrose, mais le compte n’y est pas. C’est consternant.

    • Eeek… c’est vraiment décevant. C’est tellement frustrant quand les gens croient en des stéréotypes faux et manipulateurs! À la limite, je peux comprendre une personne qui n’aime pas les gens de tel ou tel pays (j’approuve pas, hein), SI la personne a déjà rencontré et parlé avec ces Étrangers en question. Or, souvent, c’est même pas le cas.

      • Martin Penwald on

        Ça reste des généralisations idiotes. Et en effet, la plupart se base sur des on-dit et des rumeurs.

        Connards de tous les pays, unissez-vous !

  2. I read your article yesterday with great interest and it made me think a lot to think about. I’d imagine you interviewing members of this community very well…

  3. That’s nice of you Juliette, no surprises though 🙂

    I hope this young man makes his dream a reality!

    And, of course, racism exists, in my opinion it exists everywhere, so Ottawa is no exception, what is nice and warm is that so does many other things, like good people, they exist everywhere too, awesome weather, Ottawa is luckier than many places (of curse you gotta like winter, then this is the case). What I would like to believe and I feel it is true is that law is stronger and swifter, here, than many other places in the world.

    • I hear you. One good thing in Ottawa is that racism IS frowned upon. This doesn’t mean that racist comments and behaviour doesn’t exist but at least, it’s not endorsed publicly.

  4. Super cet entretien 🙂 Ca me fait penser a mon ex qui etait arrive en France d’Angola a 16ans en plein hiver (bon la Lorraine c’est pas Ottawa, mais il fait froid!). Au derniere nouvelles il etait marie et travaillait dans une entreprise de chauffagisme / climatisation (c’etait bien il y a 10 ans!!!). J’espere que Mike trouvera lui aussi son chemin 🙂
    Je ne sais pas si c’est quelque chose qui t’interesse, mais je suis benevole ici avec une association qui aide with adult literacy. I taught a peruvian immigrant who became a friend and am about to help someone else with their test to become a Canadian. I’ve also tutored a refugee from the Congo.

    • C,est super, je ne savais pas qu’en plus tu faisais du bénévolat! Wow. That’s awesome. It’s such a lame excuse, but I don’t think I can commit to anything else right now… I can’t find time 🙁

      • I love that you understand my franglais, bcse I didn’t even realize I was doing it 😉
        And I totally understand! It’s hard sometimes to find the time! It might be something you get into when life slows down a little (does it ever?)

        • Fluent in franglais, ah oui! Chui translatrice 🙂

          I suck at volunteering in person over the long term. That’s the best way I can put it. I’m best for short-term projects, works better in my schedule because there are times when I’m really free and other when it’s crazy (freelance work is always like that).

          • TBH I’m the same, I know pple who take on big projects and volunteer a lot of their time. The Peruvian guy I helped with his English was flexible too and we went through times when I would mentor him twice a week then nothing for a couple of months. I now consider him a friend and we commute together! (Not that I’m trying to convince you….)

          • No, that’s cool to know! The few places I looked at in Ottawa for volunteering asked for a bigger set commitment, which put me off (although I understand the need for a strong commitment!)

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