Today marks a bittersweet day.
10th of December, 1980, at the age of 13, I arrived in Canada to start my new life!
While in the refugee camp, I did a little bit of looking after some sheep on a hobby farm. Through an unbelievable coincidence, the owner of the farm had a son who had the male version of my name – and who was born on the very same day I was (day and year). SO, he took a bit of a shine to me. When I told him we got into Canada and would be leaving, he gave me parting gift – some Canadian cash!
Aside: he would occasionally give me presents of Austrian money for looking after his sheep and for helping his octagenarian mother (who was afraid of strangers, especially the emigrants, but seemed to suffer me OK) with whatever she needed – something I was happy to do, presents or not, as it gave me things to do…the boredom of endless waiting to learn your future can be deadly! From this money, I was able to save up enough to buy winter boots for myself and my parents: something I was very, very proud of!
The journey was long and tiring – we were collected from the hostels in the foothills of the Alps where emigrant families had been stationed starting shortly after midnight and did not get into the main camp of Traiskirchen, just outside of Vienna, until well into the afternoon. (No, we were not hungry – we had boxed meals with us, just tired and excited.)
There, we were split up into empty beds in many large rooms of 30-or-so people. But, the residents whose numbers we were supplementing made it clear that we were disrupting their routine and were not welcome. It was also there that we were told the weight restrictions on our luggage, so we had to get rid of some of the few things we had carefully chosen to bring along to help us tart our new life. I had to give up the only book I had managed to hold on to till then (by Karl May) – perhaps this explains why now I collect books rather obsessively.
At 5 am or so the next morning, we got up and boarded the buses for the airport. It was very exciting! As I knew I had to leave the book behind, and since there were no lights out in my room, and since I was very, very excited, I calmed myself down by re-reading the book during that night. Well, most of it, anyway. It was a calming mechanism and saying good by to a book that had gotten me through difficult times in the past. (I credit this book with having made me so curious about Egyptian culture.)
Once at the airport, we saw the airplane on the tarmac. It stood there, all by itself, with stairs at the front, middle and back. When, after a few hours, the doors opened, releasing us emigrants onto the tarmac, people started sprinting towards that airplane!
And I started sprinting towards freedom with the rest of them!!!
I got in and saved 3 seats for me and my parents, we got settled, and that is all I remember of the flight. I have a vague recollection of my parents talking to some of the other people, but, after 2 nights of not sleeping, now that I was safely away from Europe, I relaxed and fell into a deep sleep.
My dad woke me up as we were descending into Montreal. Disoriented by irregular sleep and time-zone-change, I had no idea what time of day or night it was – I just saw that it was dark outside. Once we landed, an announcement went out over the airplane that people who are to go to Toronto or Vancouver were to stay put, and only those going to Montreal and Ottawa are to de-plane.
It turned out that there were two families going to Montreal – and that we were the only family going to Ottawa! A full 737 – and everyone but our 3 families was going to Toronto or Vancouver. In retrospect, it was rather nice of them to have stopped in Montreal instead of making us go to Toronto and then backtrack.
Once on the ground, we were no longer emigrants – now we were immigrants! Oh, what a glorious difference!
At immigration at the Mirabel airport, the two families going to Montreal were me by their immigration officer. However, nobody knew anything about us. The kindly lady there offered to call the Ottawa office, and we waited a couple hours for a response. It turned out that they forgot about us. They asked if we had any money. My dad had some German Marks and my mom had some Austrian Shillings, so we said yes. They told us to use the money to buy a bus ticket to Ottawa and, by the time we got there, someone would be there at the bus station to pick us up.
We went to buy the bus ticket – the last bus for the night was leaving in 20 minutes, but they would only accept Canadian currency.
We went to the foreign exchange kiosk to get some Canadian money for the Marks or Shillings, but it was closed. A security guard told us we could try the one at the other end of the airport. So, suitcase and carry-on each (we did not know the trollies were OK to use for everyone), we rushed to the other side of the of the airport to get our money exchanged. That kiosk was also closed…and these were the only two currency exchange kiosks at the airport.
My parents were beginning to panic!!!
This is when I pulled my going-away present out and wondered if it would be enough! My parents were reluctant to use my money, but saw no other way out. It was just enough – we only got about $2.00 back in change.
So, off we were to Ottawa!
Everything looked so exotic and strange and, well, ‘wild west’! The houses did not even have stucco on the outside, exposed bricks showing! I’d never seen anything so exotic! In retrospect, it seems to me that some of the other passengers found my excitement, well, amusing…
When we finally pulled into the bus station in downtown Ottawa, it was well past 11 pm. A guy in a fancy-looking coat and an expensive scarf picked us up in his car, drove us to the Bytown Hotel in downtown Ottawa, booked us in on his personal credit card, gave us breakfast vouchers, and told us to report to the immigration office at 300 Laurier Street the next day.
Thus ended my first day in Canada!
This memory is sweet – but I cannot remember it without noting that 10th of December also marks the death of Aqsa Parvez in 2007.
Here was another young woman who, like I once was, had been filled with promise, with hopes of living the full life of a Canadian woman! Yet, she had the misfortune to come from a different immigrant background than I. My parents helped me become a true Canadian. Hers killed her for daring to try…
Aqsa Parvez – as long as I live, I will mourn you!