I was a four-year-old political refugee.
I’m confessing this at a time when the “migrant problem” is in the news and on the minds of many Canadians.
With child refugees dying on sea crossings and in the back of smuggler-abandoned vehicles, most everyone is wondering what can be done about the relentless tide of refugees from Syria and other African countries.
The stream of migrants into Europe seems unstoppable. Many world leaders are feeling helpless, saying it’s economically unsustainable for their countries to accept these people.
But is it really?
My thoughts turn back to 1967 when Canada opened its doors wider to refugees — including my family.
My dad was raised in an anti-Communist household in the former Yugoslavia. With his career prospects stymied by his refusal to join the Communist Party led by Josip Broz Tito, my father grew desperate when my mom became pregnant again.
There was already me and my younger brother to care for. Another mouth to feed would impoverish us.
Then two things happened that changed our lives: Canada decided to mark Expo ’67 in Montreal by raising its quota of refugees and immigrants; and Belgium decided to waive visa requirements to allow more Eastern Europeans to visit the World’s Fair hosted that year by Brussels.
These opportunities were seen as godsends by my parents. They secretly sold our house in Vrsac and put into motion an escape plan that soon devolved into a nail-biting thriller.
First my father, then my mother, had to nose around Belgrade to find the ticket office of Belgium’s Sabena Airlines. Someone ratted them out to the police and an officer arrived at our house, demanding to see our passports.
Fortunately my mom still had our documents with her when she strode up to the second floor of a tourist-only hotel in Belgrade to obtain our airline tickets — just as the woman was locking up the office.
Sympathetic to my mother’s plight, the clerk agreed to reopen the door and issue four tickets.
It was like winning a lottery, my mom recalled many years later.
My parents told me the Yugoslav government would never have allowed all four members of our family to exit the country at once. Children left behind ensured that a parent would return from abroad.
When my mom and dad, toddler brother and four-year-old self boarded the Sabena airlines flight, all the money left over from our house sale had to be smuggled out under the wrapper of a large chocolate bar. It was illegal to take money out of the country.
Once in Brussels, my parents chose to seek asylum in Canada. Their reasons were many, but safety and freedom topped the list. My mother always said she wanted to live in a land that didn’t have mandatory military service when my brother turned 18.
The kindly female Canadian Embassy worker saw a young couple with little children who couldn’t go back to where they came from, and desperately needed a new place to stake their future.
Whatever my parents told her convinced her we were worth gambling on. And we are forever grateful to have been accepted into Canada.
Our airplane landed in November 1967 on what resembled frozen tundra, but was actually Saskatoon.
After sunny Serbia and elegant Brussels, the wind-whipped, snow-covered Canadian Prairies could not look less hospitable. My mom was seven-months pregnant with my sister Alex at the time. My dad had $20 left in his pocket.
They were just glad to be here.
Things were tough at first. Nothing was familiar — even Canadian butter had a strange, foreign taste. But my parents marvelled at the embarrassment of choice of produce in Canadian grocery stores and the friendliness of the people.
Mom and dad, then in their early 30s, didn’t speak English, but managed to connect with some kind and helpful Canadians, several of whom became lifelong friends. We first settled as tenants in a house owned by Chinese immigrants.
My father, who had taught agriculture at a community college in Vrsac, near the Hungarian and Romanian borders, was content to take his first Canadian job offer — as meat cutter in the kitchen of the Bessborough Hotel.
Within months, he discovered why Canada is considered a land of opportunity.
My dad landed a career-defining job at the University of Saskatchewan, working under Milton Bell (who was later made an Officer of the Order of Canada) on a team that developed canola as a major crop and product that was fit for human consumption. It was an experience that put him in good stead to later become a federal government food inspector in Winnipeg and Victoria.
Dad paid for his own night courses to learn English; there were no government-funded courses at the time. He always pursued self-improvement, rarely being without his well-thumbed English/Serbo-Croat dictionary.
“How do you pronounce ‘the’?” he would ask, tripping up on the ‘th’ sound.
“Not ‘da,’ ‘thhhhe!’” we would reply in exasperation.
Mom’s English was never overly fluent and she couldn’t pursue employment with her forestry degree on the Prairies. But she worked for many years as a lab researcher at the University of Manitoba and later became a real estate agent before passing away in 2010.
My two youngest sisters were born in Canada. The rest of us became Canadian citizens as soon as we could, which was then five years after arriving.
Mom and Dad eventually built and sold a series of homes, ran a successful bed-and-breakfast operation, and raised four kids who continue to contribute to Canada’s economy.
I remain proud of their courage and resilience — of their willingness to do what was necessary to give us a better life.
After surviving the embarrassment of being different than our classmates (including having a non-English-speaking grandma, who, after arriving in 1972, would greet our friends with a kiss on their foreheads), we kids grew up OK in this new land.
My siblings become a doctor, a social worker and a massage therapist.
Unlike a commonly held misconception about refugees, none of my parents, me, my brother or sisters ever applied for a government welfare cheque.
In fact, my now 82-year-old father was so hard-working that when he retired as Vancouver Island’s only poultry, egg, and fruit and vegetable inspector, he liked to point out that they had to hire multiple people to replace him.
When I think of what helped my family members transition to becoming Canadians, it wasn’t this country’s welfare state.
It was that we were allowed to strive for success through decent job opportunities and an accessible, affordable education system.
My university-educated parents wouldn’t have been as happy or productive if they were denied the chance to use some of their skills and knowledge in their new home.
Knowing this, perhaps we should do better at recognizing the training and skills that other refugees are bringing to Canada. There’s no reason that a foreign-trained doctor, for instance, should spend years flipping pizzas because he can’t get timely retesting opportunities.
Canada doesn’t have a perfect historic record of helping all those who clambered for our shores. But it seemed like this country was trying to make up for past sins, like failing to help Jewish boat people during the Second World War, by having more generous resettlement policies of late.
That’s why it’s so disturbing to discover that Canadian refugee quotas were cut significantly over the last few years by the federal government.
Perhaps it’s a good time to take stock of what values we want to carry forward. Hopefully tolerance, generosity and compassion will be among them.
Just as my refugee family has added new strands to the fabric of this society (my parents have eight Canadian-born grandchildren), Canada has been very good to us.
We were extended boundless possibilities, as well as civil liberties. Canadian police thankfully don’t show up to seize our passports, question our politics or our travel plans.
As someone who was born in a land without democracy, free speech, or a free press, it’s never been lost on me how lucky I am to work as a journalist in a country that has all of the above.
Isn’t our good fortune worth sharing?