Welcome to my new series, Ten Immigrants, Ten Interviews.
You guys all know my story by now, and you have a pretty good idea of what my life in Canada looks like. I thought it was time to let other immigrants and new Canadians speak. I contacted ten of them, who each have their own story, their own reasons to come to Canada, their own point of view on how life is up North in the igloos. They all answered ten questions, bringing a new perspective on immigration.
A new post will be published every Saturday.
Unlike many immigrants to Canada, Yasmine and her family hadn’t thought of immigrating anywhere. They hadn’t really chosen Canada either: they came as refugees after leaving their war-torn country. Their story is truly moving, from a perfect life in former Yugoslavia to coming as refugees in Germany and then Canada, where they eventually settled.
From her blog, I had the idea that Yasmine would be an interesting person to interview. I found the little note in the sidebar very cute: “I learned my English from movies, so I’m sorry if there are any errors. Feel free to mail me corrections!”. Her English is great and I was amazed to see that her French was flawless as well — this is not an easy language to master.
After replying to my questions, Yasmine admitted it was harder than she would have thought because it still stirred up old memories. After learning the whole story, I have a lot of admiration for this strong women and what her and her family have overcome.
What brought you to Canada?
I never ever in my life thought of immigrating to Canada or anywhere else for that matter. In the early nineties, I was living peacefully with my husband and my two little children in a small town of the former Yugoslavia. The economical and political situations were shaky at this point but I was not overly worried. We lived in a beautiful, peaceful country with everything we needed. We both had a job we loved and the education and health systems were great (and almost free of charge). We were one young happy family.
Nothing prepared us for the war that started slowly in 1991 in the North and spread like a bushfire all over the country. Suddenly there were bombs destroying everything, fear and killings…unimaginable things started to invade our lives. I finally decided to flee the country early 1992 with my two children and go to join my sister who lived in Germany. My husband decided to stay. At that point, I thought I was going to stay in Germany for 3 or 4 weeks but we stayed for 14 years. It was the beginning of a life I would have never imagined, full of surprises, changes and challenges. I therefore often feel like Forrest Gump from the famous movie: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”. The six years we spent in Germany as refugees are an immigration story by themselves, it was a struggle to survive and rebuild a life up from zero while bringing up our children.
Long story short: after six years, we weren’t allowed to stay longer in Germany and we had to go back to our country, where we had lost literally everything, or we could immigrate to another country where they would accept us and start again. This was the most difficult decision to make, one of the darkest moments of our lives. We had to choose between the USA, Canada and Australia. After some research, we decided Canada was the best place for our children. The paperwork was done fast because we were accepted as refugees. Our destination in Canada was imposed by the Canadian embassy, we had no choice, we were heading for Quebec. We didn’t speak French at all, not one word.
Did you find the immigration process difficult?
The whole process was accelerated by the agreement between Germany and Canada and we had help from an humanitarian organization. It took us only 5 months from the beginning to landing in Montréal in September 1998. Nevertheless, we had to pay the fees like any immigrant.
How long did it take you to find a job that you liked in Canada?
We had to learn French language first in order to find a job. Our children attended language classes at school and my husband and I took a French language course for immigrants. Then followed some job searching and computer training. A year later, I found my first job, although not in my line of work. Actually the job found me: I was offered a position while participating in the computer training!
It was difficult in the beginning but I eventually grew to like this job as I worked with immigrants and were able to help them through the process of settling here. I have been working there for 9 years. Currently I’m looking for another job with better working conditions. My husband was able to find only seasonal jobs in the first 3 years but then he found a decent job in a good company (not in his field though) and is still working there.
Where did you learn French/ English? What was your second language level when you first came to Canada?
When we first came to Canada, no one in the family spoke French. And even if I was able to communicate in English at the intermediate level, that didn’t help us a lot – Quebec is a VERY francophone city. We then followed the language courses for immigrants and after a year we were all able to communicate in French well enough to find a job or to study. At the same time, my children were able to learn English trough the television by watching The Simpsons, imagine!
What was your biggest culture shock?
My whole story is bittersweet and I would like to apologize if I come over as a negative person (I hope not!). The immigration experience was very painful for me and my family for many different reasons. Simplified, it would look like this: the first year, I cried every day; the second year, I cried once a week and the third once a month. After that, the things started to look better and I cried less often.
Now I don’t cry any more but I do feel nostalgic. When we arrived to Quebec, I was very surprised to see poor and homeless people. I guess my source of information embellished the situation and was actually aiming tourists. I didn’t have an internet connection in the nineties so my research was limited to books, magazines and video tapes. Values important to me were also very different, people and families are not so close to each other, generations are very independent. Money and material possessions have a greater value here than they had in the other places I lived. On the positive side, I was very pleasantly surprised with the place of women in society.
What haven’t you gotten used to yet in Canada?
Do you know the saying:“You can’t replant an old tree”? Well, I was almost 40 when I arrive in Canada and I guess the environment was too different to grow new roots. That’s why I have a list of things that I’m still working on, but I can accept the fact that this is the way things are.
I find it hard to accept the working conditions: I went from 6 weeks vacation annually to only 2 in Canada and than had to work for five years in order to have 3 weeks vacation. Other things on my list: food, climate and human relationships. People here are very friendly but in a superficial and distant way. It’s very difficult to find friends – I’m still searching. But then again, it could be my age, people of my generation have already well established friendships. There is a song called “Exile” from the album “Identités” of an Algerian songwriter Idir that describes perfectly the state of my (immigrant) mind and soul.
Did immigrating to Canada match your expectations?
The circumstances of my immigration to Canada were special, I didn’t wake up one day with the desire to immigrate to this country. That being said, I’m very grateful for all the support and the opportunities we had to rebuild our life and even to get to a very comfortable level. I’m very happy for my children who are now young adults and have a chance to live in a free, politically and economically safe country with so many possibilities. I think we made the right decision.
Do you find life expensive in Canada compared to your home country?
My motto: you can’t have everything! In some countries food is cheap but the housing is expensive, sometimes the education is free, but the salaries aren’t so great, etc. In the beginning you have to be frugal, after that you have to watch how you spend what you earn because spending the “invisible” money is so easy.
Why did you apply for Canadian citizenship?
We applied for the Canadian citizenship after 3 years of living in Canada. We wanted to be able to participate in the life of our new country. We also wanted to be able to travel freely as Canadians – this was not possible with our old passports.
What advice would you give to someone interested in immigrating to Canada?
Research, research, research, before and after. Learn to speak one or both of the official languages very well, start in your own country if possible. Get to know all the local resources that can help you with everything in the beginning – priceless!
Take your time: the immigrants, myself included, would like to accomplish everything and to settle in the first 6 to 12 months. Some people are lucky, but most immigrants need from 3 to 5 years to achieve the “cruising speed”. This is the best advice somebody gave me in the beginning and it’s true. Even if you speak the language and have a job, trust me, you’ll need that time.
Another advice: don’t lose your time and energy comparing things with your country. I know some things can be shocking at first, but the sooner you ACCEPT the way things work around here the better and more successful your immigration will be. And I’m talking from my experience: if I could, I would go back and slap my silly old self for losing precious time by whining over my destiny. Don’t be around negative people and don’t listen to the (immigrant) horror stories – go out and make your own experience, everything is possible. Be open to new things – you might discover a new you that you never knew existed. Go out, get to know your new home country, there are so many places and events and most of them are even free. Try to develop or integrate a network of people, not only from your country. Be prepared to work hard so nothing can surprise you. Welcome and good luck!