Margaret von Lau

In Influencers2019 by Sumegha

Margaret von Lau

Second Chance

CEO at N.E.E.D.s. Inc


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?

I came to Canada from Germany in September 1989 so; this year will be the 30th Anniversary of my arrival. I left Poland in 1987 due to the communist system and the economy. Before I left Poland for Germany, I was the chief economist in one of the corporations. I decided to change life for my children since I could not buy food in the store. The situation was bad; people were suffering because of the economic burden and political burden. I moved to Germany and this essentially started my immigration stories. I first moved to Germany not too far from Poland which is just like 12 hours drive. I knew German because I studied German in High school and at the University. While in Germany, we went to the store, I could see food in the store and even the little things like chocolate, which the children did not see for few years in the store in Poland due to the poor economic situation.

While in Germany, I was planning on going to either the United State, Canada or New Zealand. This was during the time people were applying for immigration.

Like many people back home, why I chose Canada stems from what we think about Canada, 'it is a paradise and money grows on trees, we just pick it up, and we do not have to do anything.' This is a myth that people still have in their minds before they come. To come to Canada, I had to find a sponsor and our sponsor was the Holy Ghost Church on Selkirk in Winnipeg. I had to bring $20,000 for my family that comprised of my previous husband and two kids. The money was a requirement and I had no idea where one would get $20,000 coming from Poland where we barely had maybe just a few hundreds of dollars. So, I found a job in a restaurant as a kitchen help and after that,  I became a bar attendant.  I then became the manager of the restaurant working from Monday to Friday, 12 to 14 hours per day while on Saturdays, I worked 7 hours.  I had Sundays off so I could go to church and spend time with my family. I worked hard knowing I had a goal to save the required amount of money and in 6 months, my family and I were granted visas to Canada. On September 25, 1989, we arrived in this beautiful city of Winnipeg.

What was your first impression when you arrived in Canada?

Toronto was our point of entry and since I never studied English, during the long flight, I had a Polish-English dictionary and I learned how to say ‘GOOD MORNING.’  I was determined to say good morning to the first person I saw as soon as we got off the plane. When we got off the plane, the first thing I said to the immigration officers or whoever was there was ‘GOOD MORNING.’ They all just looked at me with a confused and I thought, this how people reply to greetings in Canada. I did not know that 'Good Afternoon' existed. We arrived in Winnipeg quite late and the people who sponsored us came to pick us up. They drove us to the house where we stayed for the first five days. From the airport, we were driving and driving and I remember asking where the city was? I am from Warsaw the capital city of Poland with a population of two million people. 30 years ago, Winnipeg did not look close to what it looks now.

We arrived in Transcona, we saw cottages, and I was still asking when are we going to the city? Their responses whenever I asked was the same, ‘we were in the city.' They took us to a house and it was a big one. When we entered and I saw the inside, I said 'oh it is okay, it is only from the outside that the house looks big.' My first impression of Winnipeg was of my realization that we were living in cottages; there was no downtown, and not too many people on the street.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you moved here?

I am a positive person so, I did not take the beginning in Canada as a challenge. I was thinking that anything happening was just my choice. I decided to come, so anything that came I had to face it and I had to fix it. The great barrier I faced was the English language and also not knowing people. We were fully dependent on the family assigned to us by the church. After going through all the necessary documentation, the first thing on my mind then was to get a job. In three days, I got an interview at Pallister Furniture and I felt like 'a fish in water' because my interview was in German. I got the job and so I started a job after a week after we arrived in Canada. This is when the highest obstacle started. I was coming from a senior managerial position to a factory worker. I already had a wealth of experience from where I was coming from, as an economist and I was thinking of how we could do things differently, faster, and have more efficient production. I remember once I said to my supervisor that if we do things differently, we could increase our outcomes in probably thirty percent and he looked at me and he said, 'I do not need your brain, I just need your hands,  go back to work, and do whatever I ask you to do.'

I started taking evening English classes at Gordon Bell School immediately I started work. I used to go to work at 7:00 AM until 3:30 PM when I had to pick up the kids from school, give them food and went to school from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM. My experience at work affected me and since I could not use my brain, I shut down. I tried to remember any English word I learnt the previous day and put myself in the position that I am an actor in the factory playing the role of the best employee. I was coming to work and worked like a machine. I did not talk to anyone; I just focused on the task I had to do. I finally got an opportunity to go to school full-time to enhance my English skills. I went to Wall Street School. I remember the day my supervisor said to me, 'see you on Monday,' and I told him that it was my last day because I was starting school. He then told me that I could always come back to work any time I need a job. My response was, “if I knew English like German, I would not come back to work in the factory because I just want to use my brain”.

Due to limited resources at home, I started to work at the Salvation Army as kitchen help. I served food to vulnerable women who had left their families and this is when I started seeing what Canada was all about. I could see that people both immigrants and Canadian born have difficulties. This was already in 1990 and the employment rate was 8 or 9%. There were no jobs in Winnipeg. The mortgage rate was like 15%. The economy at that time was very difficult. I was going to both morning school and evening school, and still working. With school, I improved my English from zero to an advanced level where I passed a proficiency test in one year. I started to feel like English was not that difficult and discovered that German and English had a similar vocabulary with the same or different spelling and pronunciation. Then one day I woke up, I started to speak English. It was easy to replace German with English eventually; I lost 80% of my German.

Was there any support from the community to help you integrate? If yes, what were they? If not, how did you survive?

My family got support from Holy Ghost Church and from the family that was assigned to us by the church. By then, there was a huge Polish community here in Winnipeg so, I saw many people from Poland in the city I lived in whenever we went to church.  We started to build a community and learn from each other in the city. The Polish community was one of my resources for English. At that time, we did not have any official organization that provided support for immigrants in Winnipeg until 1993. There was no information from anywhere about immigration organization in the city.

When I gained admission at the Red River College for English classes, I thought I would be ready to compete for any job but, I was not very proficient to get a job in the office. I got a job in a restaurant since my credentials from Poland were not recognized in Canada. I had become discouraged and believed I came to Canada for nothing. Amidst it all, I divorced my ex-husband and I became sick with clinical depression for a year and I was praying to die.  I did not know how my children would survive if, I died. I went on social assistance and I was praying every day for the nightmare to end.

This was my story until I met Fatima Soares who was the Executive Director of the Immigrant Women Employment Counselling at that time. The Immigrant Women Employment Counselling offered a program for single moms providing them with career opportunities. This program was for women who were facing clinical depression and wanted to go back to the job market. One of the classes they offered was geared towards building women's self-esteem and confidence. We created visual affirmations with pictures and our goals. The picture I created said, “I am an independent and powerful woman”. This gave me the power to challenge myself and believe that if somebody can do it, I can too. I am from Poland and I never used to believe in any psychosocial thinking until I looked in the mirror one day and saw myself. For over a year, I was seeing somebody else's body instead of my own, and there I was looking in the mirror and seeing myself. I was back, it was like, I was re-born. This was my ‘Second Chance.’ I then started volunteering at the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) and there I got my first funding and opened Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services (N.E.E.D.S.) Inc. Many people suffer from depression and cannot speak out because of the trauma they go through. The trauma of leaving their country of origin, leaving their family, people, and not finding life easy in the new places they settle in.

What do you miss most from your country of origin?

I cannot be in two countries at the same time but I miss Poland. I do not miss individual streets or any given situation; however, I miss my roots.

Since coming to Canada, have you visited your country of origin? What was your first impression of going back? How did it feel?

I visited Poland for the first time after 17 years in Canada. I wanted to kiss the ground because I felt that, this is where I belong. However, I later realized that Poland was not the same country as before. There was different people, a different mentality, and within three weeks, I wanted to go home back to Winnipeg. This was a healing moment when I realized that I could not be in two countries at the same time and I had to make a decision of where I belong. I belong fully to Canada, I belong to Winnipeg. For me, Canada is the best country in the world and Winnipeg is the most beautiful city. Canada is the only country where you can become whatever you desire and opportunities are boundless in Canada. You just need to know where the opportunities are.

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?

I was a senior manager in Poland while in Germany, I worked as a kitchen help, bar attendant, and a restaurant manager. Arriving in Canada, I worked in a furniture factory and I worked at the Salvation Army as well. I then volunteered at IRCOM where I eventually got funding to establish NEEDS Inc. where I am the Chief Executive Officer.

What steps did you take to achieve the occupation you are currently in or previously held before you retired?

First, I went to back to school here in Canada and while working at IRCOM in 1994, I started doing some research on the needs assessment of the women. IRCOM exposed me to a lot of information about other immigration organizations. I approached United Way and re-wrote a proposal that was on the ground at IRCOM on how to match people with employment. On January 1st, 1995, I got funding for the English classes and on February 1st, 1995, I got a 5-year contract. In 1997, we moved from IRCOM offices to a separate building. At that time, NEEDS project was under the Welcome Place and we officially were incorporated on the 16th of February 16th, 1999 as NEEDS Inc. However, on April 1st, 1999, we found out that all our funding was canceled. We had zero money, we could not pay rent or, pay salaries but we kept on seeing our clients. The building property owner gave us free rent for a year. In April 2000, we finally started getting funding even though, it was not enough, in 2001, we managed to move to our current location. We started slowly and have grown to our present status.

How has your life changed since moving here?

Every time I wake up, I feel like my body is connected with my soul. I am no longer worried about seeing a stranger in a mirror who looks like me. The experiences I passed through molded me into the person I am today and they have made to appreciate everything around me. It is important to understanding ourselves and also know how lucky we are. This, in the end, will help us serve our clients better while contributing to society.

What advice would you give to newcomers in Canada?

For newcomers:

  • Believe that you are special
  • Believe that you have potential
  • Look for resources in the community to help you.

If you have these three things, you will succeed.

What advice would you give to people back in your country?

Money does not grow on the trees and you cannot pick it on the streets but Canada is a country of opportunities. You can become whoever you want no matter your age.  I know people who after 50 years of age, they attended University here in Canada and went on to become professionals; they became doctors, lawyers, architects among other professions.

Santa Claus will not come to your door to give you a job. You have to work hard and you will slowly grow. You should have the dream, put your affirmation where you want to go, and take one step at a time and be consistent. People that are presidents, prime minister, etc. are born of a mother and father. It, therefore, means that all of us can become what we desire for ourselves.

What advice would you give to Canadians on how to relate with immigrants?

Apart from the indigenous people, we need to understand our roots, find out the life story of your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents who came here 150 years ago. Do not look at this as if you are getting fruits from the tree, look at what is inside the tree, the root of the tree, and know the story. Respect those great grandparents who made the sacrifices to come to this country and build it for you so that you can be successful today. If these people did not come, you would not be in this amazing country. Do not take the fruit unless you know what is inside.