A Letter to Refugees and Immigrants in Canada

An immigrant ship, probably from the 1950s.Dear Refugees & Immigrants,

Happy New Year! And welcome to Canada. As I sat around during the holidays, missing members of my family who’ve passed away, I started to think about you. You may or may not have much of your family here. You may also be wondering what the hell you’re doing here, or even if you’re going to make it. If you’re doubting things, we need to chat.

The media reports generally bad news (though my local paper does publish good news once in awhile), and when it has to do with immigrants, it seems to stand out that much more. When Paul Bernardo, Luca Magnotta, and Robert Pickton committed their heinous murders in Canada, no one asked what skin colour they had, what country their families came from, or what religion they followed. But when an immigrant acts in a way that draws the media’s attention, those details suddenly become important.

You’ve probably witnessed this more times than you’d like to remember.

Maybe you’ve walked down the street and seen a headline about a woman who had her head scarf pulled off. Or maybe you’ve seen the story of a man who murdered his family in the name of his religion. Or maybe you’ve seen yet another deadly attack by a group of people who claim to speak for your religion or culture.

But all you’re really trying to do right now is find a place for yourself and your family here. These horrendous stories are being held against you. That makes no sense to me. It’s as though you are as much at fault for these crimes as I am for Paul Bernardo raping numerous women and murdering two teen girls in the 1990s because he comes from my country and shares my skin colour.

To see all of that news must be suffocating. May I offer you a different option?

Look everywhere else. Except for First Nations people (the original inhabitants of the Americas), absolutely every single person on this continent is – or is a descendant of – an immigrant. Many no longer know their family’s immigration stories, but others, like me, do.

If you click around my blog, you’ll find a picture of me. I’m white. I was raised Catholic (one of the larger and older Christian religions). You could argue that my family had it easier because of that. Maybe, maybe not. My grandparents and great grandparents didn’t speak English, and there was to my knowledge no government assistance back then.

I don’t mean to suggest that your journey was therefore easier or harder. It was just different than my family’s journey. And yet, I’m certain there are many similarities between your story and my family’s.

Like you, my grandparents also struggled with how to pass on their culture to their children and grandchildren. You see, they weren’t just German, they were ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and belonged to a group called the Danube Swabians. (Not a name they gave to themselves, but one they’ve accepted for themselves. It’s a long story.) Their ancestors had maintained their culture and language for over 200 years while living outside of Germany and Austria. Another group of Germans from Eastern Europe, the Transylvanian Saxons, maintained their culture in Romania and Hungary for almost a millenium. I believe the Gottscheer Germans did, too.

Then they moved to Kitchener, and their respective cultures are dying faster than fruit flies. A common lament from the immigrant generation is this: “Why don’t the young people come out to our events?”

The answers are many, but they’re not the point of this post. I’m hoping, though, that I can at least show you that I may have an idea of what you might be going through and what your fears may be.

I don’t know if I’m in a position to offer you sage advice: I was born here, my parents were young children when they came, and I have never lived anywhere where I was vastly different from the majority. And yet, I feel like I wouldn’t be able to offer anything hopeful if I didn’t offer you more words of encouragement.

Every day, you’re going to encounter situations where you begin to question who you are and what it means to be of your culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, maybe even your generation and your age. I can’t offer a fist pump and say, “Stay true to what you believe!” I know you are going to change no matter what, that change is needed for you to live here, and what you believe may be at odds (even great odds) with the culture you find yourself in.

The best I can offer is this: Be patient. Whether you find the strength for that patience in your faith, your family, your friends, your forebears, even your fantasy, be patient. You cannot foresee how things will turn out.

But I can sit here, knowing that my father was four years old when his parents and grandparents risked being shot as they crossed the border from Hungary to Yugoslavia to escape a Communist dictatorship, and knowing that my mother was still a baby when her parents boarded a boat and hoped for a better life, and tell you that somehow, some way, things worked out.

As you know, there are no guarantees in life. You will struggle. Your children will come home and wonder why you’re so “backward” or “old-fashioned.” Your spouse may even have a few choice words for you. Here comes my second piece of advice: listen to them.

I don’t mean “listen” as in “do what they say.” I mean “listen” as in “sit down, look them in the eyes, and hear their words.” Then, be patient, both with yourself and with them. You may not want to do what they tell you, or you may. But don’t make that decision right away. Just listen to their words, and take time to think things through. Many have found ways to meld both cultures, but there is no book or article that can tell you how to make the journey painless.

I truly wish that you will find a way to create a home that reflects who you are but also who you are becoming. It is possible: hundreds of millions in this country have already accomplished this. The proof is all around you. You need to believe that you can, too.

Kind regards,

Lori Straus

A daughter and granddaughter of immigrants and refugees

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