30 Years after Arrival: Refugee Child to Canadian Adult
Executive Director, Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM)
Country of Origin: Poland | Current City: Winnipeg
When did you move to Canada? & why did you move to Canada? How was your life like in your country of origin before you moved to Canada?
My country of origin is Poland. I arrived in Canada on October 30, 1989, with my family. We had lived in a camp in East Germany for about fourteen months before coming to Canada. I was seven years of age when we left Poland. I was born six months before the civil war broke out. At that time, in Poland, there was suppression of the media and people were organizing themselves to strike against the government as a result of the war. Poland was a communist society and was very poor. There was a food shortage. In the early mornings, my mother used to take my elder sisters and I to stand in line and wait for the shops to open, hoping something would be left by the time we got to the front. Because I was a child when we left Poland, I think I saw things differently as compared to how my parents saw them. They feared that Poland would not see democracy. The country was so insecure and unsafe. My parents were part of the Solidarity movement and as things intensified, began to feel very unsafe because their activities were being monitored. My father managed to get a permit to do a job in Belgium so he left earlier. My mother secured travel documents for “vacation” but our vacation turned out to be our sojourn in Canada.
What was your first impression when you arrived in Canada?
It was extremely cold when we arrived in Canada. We were inadequately housed considering our family size. We were a family of seven: parents and five children. My first real memory is trick or treating on Halloween. I was so happy because people opened their homes to us and they were very generous and kind.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you moved here?
There were some challenges we faced and the major problem was the language barrier. None of us in the family could speak English when we arrived in Canada. At school, I was kept indoors for recess every day. It wasn’t just because of the cold, but because I could not speak English I was bullied a lot and the schoolyard wasn’t safe for me. I remember sitting in the classroom watching other students playing outside in winter, my parents were not able to protect me, and they could not ask questions. There were so many years of continued poverty, struggling with language, and my parents struggling to meet our daily needs. I watched my parents' hope dissolve very quickly as their self-worth crumbled. My father’s engineering credentials were not recognized so he ended up being a draftsman. My mother suffered a lot of stress, battled cancer for five years, and died eight years after we arrived. My mother died at an early age of forty-four. When my mother passed away, it really affected my father; he wasn’t able to care for all of us. My sisters were young adults, but I was sixteen and torn apart by the loss of my mother. My father didn’t know how to look after my younger brothers and I, so he relinquished his parental rights for me, and focused on my little brothers. I managed to convince the social worker that I could manage independent living, so I avoided being moved into a group home. I lived alone for 2 years as a ward of the Child Welfare system. I managed to keep going to high school, but those two years were the loneliest and most terrifying of my life. The first five years after my mother’s death were really difficult for us. We were all scattered, my sisters had nothing to offer me, it was every person for herself. We were very poor, we all had to work life out, and we had to struggle to survive.
Was there any support from the community to help you integrate? If yes, what were they? If not, how did you survive?
The greatest support we had came from our ethno-cultural community. At that time, there was an established Polish community in Winnipeg so we were able to continue going to church, and on Saturdays, we went to Polish school where we participated in language classes and other activities. My mother also taught at the Polish school because she was a teacher back home. My mother really loved teaching. We were a low-income family, so we utilized the social housing available and many social service support programs for a long period of time.
What do you miss most from your country of origin?
I will say what I missed the most was my grandmother, a very proud Polish woman. I also missed our culture, our sense of belonging. We have a unique culture in Poland, one aspect of which is that we visit cemeteries and the graves of our ancestors because we have respect for the dead just as we do have respect for the living. I could go to the graves of my great grandparents to pay respect, and those that came before them. More so, Poland was a place where I did not need to teach people how to pronounce my name. Now, when I go to Poland as an adult, I fit in easily, except when I speak my language, because I have acquired a foreign accent and it’s clear to anyone that I am not a local anymore.
Since coming to Canada, have you visited your country of origin? What was your first impression of going back? How did it feel?
Yes, I have gone back to Poland many times and since I had my children, I have gone back every year. I have secured Polish citizenship for my kids and I love going home. It is my first home, and I am very proud of it. But I recognize that my ancestry is Polish but my values are Canadian. Poland is a beautiful place that I love to visit, but it is also a very complicated society. Church and state are not separate like in Canada. Many Polish people have not had the opportunity of living outside of Poland, experiencing a more global community. Poland is not very multi-cultural or multi-racial. I remember how my grandmother embraced my future husband when I first introduced him to her. I feared she would not support our relationship because he is from a different culture, I was happy to be wrong. We now have a lot to talk to our kids about to help them understand life and relationships, however, I am up to the task of being a strong example to my children of how to build a family based on love and shared dreams.
What was your occupation in your country of origin and what is your occupation here in Canada? What have you accomplished so far and aim to in the future?
At present, I am the Executive Director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM). I am also the Vice President of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR). I consider all these as great accomplishments. I never imagined I would be where I am today. I used to work in a bank. At a point, I realized I wanted to help people arriving in Canada to obtain mortgages, own their first homes, and help them in settling down. However, this often wasn’t possible because they lacked credit history or Canadian employment history. It wasn’t the right place for me.
I hope to create a path for my children, and where a path exists, I hope to widen it. I hope to impact society’s understanding of what immigrants and refugees bring. I will continue to dedicate my life to Canada and our communities. I hope, if given a chance, that I can dedicate my life to the service of others, and perhaps impact the future in a good way. I also hope I can secure for my children opportunities I struggled to realize, so they can inherit the fruit of my labour and start from a more secure position in Canada.
What steps did you take to achieve the occupation you are currently in or previously held before you retired?
I came to IRCOM in search of meaning and purpose. I already knew I could have a great career at the bank, but that wasn’t what I needed as a person. It might sound silly, but having achieved what I promised my mother I would do, getting a practical education and working in a job that could put food on the table, I was finally free to honour what was important to me – a life dedicated to helping others. I started as a volunteer, helping women who may not have had a chance to go to school ever before, come to learn and focus on their dreams. It was magnificent. After several months of volunteering, I got a teaching position, and so my journey began. . I developed an understanding of how IRCOM works with our community, and how we support immigrants and refugees. When I started working at IRCOM, over 11 years ago, we had no money to pay staff for all the time they dedicated. I worked for 40 hours but I got paid for 10 hours – however, I had never been happier. I knew sacrifices were required and I knew I was doing something worthwhile. More so, my banking and business experiences gave me the opportunity to do a lot of things. I had the training as an English instructor and the experience of a banker. I helped to start our Money Management Training program – a real source of pride for me. At one point I was doing four different jobs at IRCOM. This was the case for many of us, small project after small project. When the position of interim Executive Director was advertised, I hesitated, as it was a huge responsibility. However, I really wanted to grow as a person and I thought I was capable or that I could learn quickly, so I applied and I was hired.
How has your life changed since moving here?
Because I go back home, I see what Poland is now. I see other people who have not traveled out. Democracy is practiced in Poland though there is still a high rate of unemployment and there is a high level of inequality between the rich and the poor. Poland, as we speak, is more of a second world country – the average national income is very low. It doesn’t afford many people the opportunity to live a life of dignity. Poland has a long way to go in terms of building a nation that could even begin to compare to Canada. There are more opportunities here in Canada, although the beginning years for most newcomers are a struggle. Canada gave my family a new life; it gave us freedom, a home, a new community. As an adult, it has given me purpose, and I am grateful for every day I can be part of its fabric.
What advice would you give to newcomers in Canada?
First, I will say that newcomers should be patient and kind to themselves. They should understand that they are beginning a journey that will tremendously influence their lives in the future, but it will take time.
Newcomers should do their best to preserve their culture, faith, and languages – it is part of what defines who they are. They can be Canadians, and celebrate their heritage.
They should know that things may get hard at some point in their new life in Canada. It takes enormous courage to cross the world. Newcomers should realize that they are strong to have made that bold step of coming to Canada. It is up to them now to contribute to Canada’s future and to make a positive impact. They can achieve whatever they genuinely desire.
Newcomers should also lay a good foundation for their children; they should remember that their children had no voice in the decisions to come to Canada, so they need to be patient with them if they struggle to adjust. They should not use their children as interpreters. Give your children a chance to be carefree and happy.
What advice would you give to people back in your country?
Life in Canada does offer more, but it isn’t easier. If you work hard, you can build something here. You can borrow money to go to school. Possibilities are limitless. However, they do not come easily, they come with a price. For instance, the cost of food in Canada is three times higher than in Poland.
People should be prepared spiritually and emotionally to live here. If you choose to come to Canada, it is going to be hard but in time it will be worth it. Many people in Canada live paycheck to paycheck. It may take you a long time before you feel that Canada is your home and even though Canadians are the most welcoming and generous people in the world, this is not a utopia. Just as there is kindness here in Canada, there are also issues of racism, bigotry, discrimination, isolation, and poverty.
What advice would you give to Canadians on how to relate with immigrants?
Our Canadian community is beautiful and many have done a wonderful job to help newcomers feel welcome. I hope this continues. I also want them to have the courage to see far into the future when they are meeting someone who has just arrived – all that is possible given time, support, and an opportunity. I am what a refugee child looks like thirty years after arrival. I am going to serve this nation for the rest of my life; I will help build a better future for your children, for my children, and their children. We came to Canada with nothing, we cost the Canadian community a lot in the first decade, but over our lifetimes we will return their kindness tenfold. I am grateful Canadians felt our lives were worth saving.