“Merrickville is a small town and everyone knows each other in the community,” said Fae MacKay during her ‘We Are Neighbours’ interview back in July. Vivianne, Project Coordinator of the Immigration Partnership got to experience this first hand.
Vivianne explains that, “After wrapping up my interviews with the MacKay kids, their mother, Diana MacKay, bumped into some friends walking across the street on their way to lunch. She introduced me to Heddy and Gary, and I shared with them a bit about the ‘We Are Neighbours’ Campaign… the next thing I know we are sitting down the street at Cha Tea House. Over lunch, Heddy and Gary shared their stories of how they came to live in the small, beautiful and dynamic village of Merrickville-Wolford.”
First, let’s meet Heddy!
Howaida Sorour (everyone calls her Heddy) was born in Cairo, Egypt and came to Canada in 1986. When asked ‘what brought you to Canada’ she said it was “by a series of accidents, quite literally”. As a young girl, one of her friend’s father worked for the Canadian embassy in Cairo, so she spent quite a bit of time around the embassy. One day, she was hanging around and one of the drivers recognized her and told her that the Canadian embassy was accepting applications from people wanting to move to Canada. Next thing she knew was inside the embassy filling out paperwork. “It was totally unplanned and I was in a hurry, so I didn’t really remember filling out the paperwork and sort of forgot about it,” she said.
A few weeks later Heddy received a letter from the Canadian embassy asking her to come in for an interview. She attended the interview and “I guess it went well,” she laughed. Three weeks later Heddy received a letter at home stating she had been granted immigrant status. Heddy’s decision to come to Canada was on impulse, “I wasn’t really thinking, I just saw the word visa” she said. At the time, it was quite difficult to get a visa to leave Egypt, “it was a lengthy process, you would have to apply 6 months ahead of time” she said. Having travelled quite a bit as a child, Heddy was ready to take on a new adventure. “I guess you could say I had the travel bug” she said, “I thought it was going to just be another adventure…31 years later, and I’m still here!” she said laughing.
When asked what advice she would give to a newcomer moving to Canada, she said there are two big things that a newcomer may have to adapt to. The first being, distances. When Heddy first arrived in Canada, she settled in Toronto, “I was shocked by how far Vancouver really was” she said. She gave an example for some perspective, “if you drive six hours outside of Cairo, you’d be at the border, if you drive two days you would be all the way through another country,” she said. From Merrickville, depending on what direction you are going you aren’t even through Ontario or just entering Quebec!
Heddy also mentioned that if you are a newcomer coming from a warm climate, getting used to winter and the weather will be another challenge to adjust to. “In Cairo, there is no such thing as a weather” she joked. For fun, Heddy pulled up the weather in Cairo on her phone…sure enough, 30 degrees, bright sun, 7 days in a row! “No one can ever prepare you for Canadian winter” said Heddy. When asked if 30 years later she had adapted, she laughed and replied “no”.
In her spare time, Heddy volunteers with numerous community groups including, the Smith Falls Rotary Club, the Smith Falls Hospital, and acts as an Arabic translator for the Rideau Bridge to Canada refugee group.
Gary Roberts was born in Quebec City. As a young boy, Gary moved around a lot. “My father was an electrician so we moved around a lot for his work. We I lived in Bay St. James, Thetford Mines, we also lived in Bermuda for a year,” he said. By the age of 6, Gary’s family settled down on the south shore of Montreal, where he lived until he was 18.
Gary lived in the Ottawa area for most of his adult life, but he says there is something unique and special about living in a small village. “In the 8 years I’ve lived in Merrickville, I’ve met and am good friends with more people than I did all those years in Ottawa” he said. “I grew up in a small town, so I am familiar with it. I like how you can walk down the street and recognize your neighbours,” he said.
Some interesting facts about Gary – he is a drummer, a martial arts instructor, he has a 5th degree black belt and he runs a weekly ‘open mic night’ in town.
What brought you to Kemptville?
Ciony, originally from the Philippines, and her husband have always had a bit of the ‘travel bug’. Meeting in Laos, where they were both working in the 1960’s, they eventually made their way to Kemptville in 1981 after Ciony’s husband’s job brought him to Eastern Ontario. Always adventurers, they moved to Kemptville without ever seeing their new town or house! Overseas travel and work continued for them, but Kemptville remained their home base; Ciony and her husband returned in the late 1980’s and have lived in the same home ever since.
What was the best thing about moving to Kemptville?
As someone from the Philippines, a country that places enormous value on friends and family, Ciony loved (and continues to love) the small-town feel of Kemptville. She got to know many people by offering her Filipina hospitality to neighbours. Introducing herself with a loaf of banana bread under her arm and invitations to join her for coffee enabled her to meet many people in the area. Ciony continues to welcome people to her home by regularly hosting 60+ people for International Friendship Club potlucks.
What was the hardest thing about moving to Kemptville?
Finding work and making professional connections came as a challenge to Ciony when she arrived to Kemptville in the 1980’s. The town lacked employment agencies and so as much as she could, Ciony took the initiative to attend events and open houses of local organizations. She used these events to introduced herself, learn more about each organization and after much hard-work, eventually secured full time work with a local social services agency.
What advice would you give to a newcomer moving to Leeds Grenville from another country?
‘Don’t just stay home and vegetate. Go to the library, read the newspaper for things to do – go out and meet people. People are just waiting for you to smile to show your friendliness.’
My name is Alice Yao Wang. I was born in China.
In 1991, I came to Canada as a visiting scholar. Upon my arrival, I was so excited and curious to discover new things that were different from my home country. I was inspired by the natural scenery and enjoyed the freedom of thoughts and speech, the courtesies of the nation, as well as being respected no matter who you are and where you are from.
Everything seemed so gorgeous, until I studied Business Administration at Wilfred Laurier University - the education system is so different. In China, if you review your textbooks, attend class and do the homework, you can surely comprehend requested information. However, without Canadian cultural background, I could hardly grasp the main ideas of the content, although I thought I understood every single word. For instances, the professor mentioned Johnson & Johnson and the Easton Centre as a case study, technically I understood the theory of management concepts, but in reality, I was totally lost, not knowing who is Johnson and what happened at the Eaton Centre. In Canada, students are trained and encouraged to do their own research, whereas in China, everything is taught in class or is in the textbook.
After I immigrated to Canada, I realized life was not easy! My skills and diploma were not being recognized here. I had to start from scratch. I felt uncertain, distressed and lost confidence in myself. This issue lasted for years until I started my own business.
Through opening a restaurant business, I gradually gained my confidence. I felt useful and helpful in the society by providing employment opportunities to local people and new immigrants. Through participating in community activities and inviting Chinese immigrants to join local events, I no longer feel deserted, on the contrary, I have become an enthusiast in the community.
Looking back on my past experiences, I would like to give some advice to newcomers: the best way to settle in a new environment is to move into a community where there is someone you know well, such as a friend or a relative. It will help you release emotional stress to a great extent, and you will get the desired assistance you need.
Last, but not least, I would like to share with you is, I love Canada, not only for its natural beauty with four distinguished seasons, but more importantly for the people that make you feel welcome! Canada opens its arms to embrace people of different cultures - that has made Canada the greatest country in the world! I cherish Brockville, a small city full of vitality and friendship. It's my second hometown and I would love to live here for the rest of my life!
Takouhi Dimirdjian-Petro was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon in an Armenian Family. She found her way into Canada via the Vermont-Quebec border on August 21, 1986. The Canadian Government had given permission to Lebanese citizens to enter Canada to find refuge and call it home.
Q: When you left Beirut, what possessions did you take with you? What important things, if any, did you leave behind?
A: When I left Lebanon, at the end of August 1983; I took nothing but a suitcase full of personal items; my poetry notebook (which I still have to this day), and my Bible, which was a gift from my mother, and I left behind many family members.
Q: Where did you live before you immigrated to Canada?
A: My Parents sent me to Los Angeles, as Canada was never in the plans. The Airport in Beirut, Lebanon was closed, as the fighting was intense around that area. My mother hired a cab with two other travelers and took me to Damascus, Syria, and sent me to Los Angeles, via Paris, France so that I could live with my eldest sister in L.A. and finish my high school. Our family was not rich and we were not even considered middle-class, but individuals from a small church in the Los Angeles area helped my eldest sister to get us flights and get us out of Lebanon one by one. After the U.S. Embassy refused to issue visa for six or seven times, I obtained a tourist visa to enter the U.S. in 1983. Therefore, I arrived and lived in L.A. from September 1983 to August 1986. My three-month visa turned into a three-year stay, illegally. I attended an Armenian private school by the grace of scholarships that individuals helped me with. So, Los Angeles became the hub before arriving Canada.
Q: What had you heard about Canada before you came? What stereotypes/expectations did you have?
A: I do not recall knowing much about Canada. In June of 1986 my two sisters who were still in Beirut, and attempting to get to L.A. to join us, heard that the Canadian Government had opened its doors for Lebanese citizens to come and call Canada, home – “Projet du Liban”, but they needed paperwork to get on the plane to cross the ocean. These papers came at a whopping cost of $5,000.00 U.S. which someone provided for them to be able to get out of Lebanon. They arrived at Mirabel Airport and obtained a Minister’s Permit, which was the beginning of calling Canada home. After which, Ruth, one of the sisters who had arrived here, asked me if I would like to come to Canada and live a “legal life” and belong to a country that took care of its people. Next thing I know, by August 21, 1986, my mother, my two sisters, and I had completed our entrance to Canada and started to call Canada Home – The place where we belonged and beloved.
Q: Can you share a memorable experience with us about what it was like, how you were feeling when you first arrived to Canada?
A: When I first arrived in Canada, I felt sad and lonely at times. Our first Winter was the hardest thing to handle. We lived in a one bedroom apartment in “Park Extension” of Montreal (Boulevard de l'Acadie & Rue Saint Roch), where the closest bus route was five blocks away. In the winter those five block walks seemed like an eternity.
I had worked as a cashier, under the table, in L.A. and never knew the life of a 9-5 manufacturing employment. Everywhere we went to look for a job we were asked if we had the Canadian experience (I wanted to tell the people, give me the job so that I can get the Canadian Experience – but I did not). Other times we were asked if we were bilingual. Yes, we spoke other languages besides English, but they were not the right ones. We needed to learn French, English, Armenian and Arabic were not enough.
At last we found work at a company that received clothing for Eaton, Sears and The Bay from China. We were to open the packages, hang the clothes on hangers and put them through the dry-cleaning machine.
The prerequisite to get a work permit was to find a job first. The situation was more tricky than one would think. So, after a few weeks of working, the employer gave a letter with our check stubs as proof that we have a job. This letter was hand-written on a cardboard that came out of a shirt packaging. I remember to this day that the immigration officer was stunned to see such a letter of employment. I wish I had a picture of it….
But through all these hardships the Armenian Evangelical Churches and other individuals kept on helping us and making us feel welcome. We were within walking distance from two Armenian Evangelical Churches and they both embraced us. On the other hand, a lady that attended the Armenian Apostolic Church had heard of our family and connected us with a Catholic Church in Ville St. Laurent who gave us furniture to fill our one-bedroom apartment and have a “normal” life. We could barely communicate with the priest, as he only spoke French, but their hospitality and love made all communication obstacle disappear.
If it was not for all the ecumenical help, both physical and emotional, that came to us from left and right, we would not know how we would have survived.
Did you experience “culture shock”? Was it hard to adapt? If so, what was challenging?
I think it was helpful that I was 19 years of age when I arrived in Canada and I really did not have any major culture shock. It also helped that I lived in L.A. for three years prior to Canada. There were still things that I had to learn and adapt to – such as having a life that was safe – as safe as a life can be. There were no longer bombs falling around us. As a young girl, education beyond high school was unheard of, but Canada helped me to accomplish something beyond my imagination.
I know my education and vocation came by quite late, in 2004, I had married a wonderful man, Gary Petro, on September 3, 2000. With his full support, I accepted the call of ministry and started theological courses at Concordia University on January 5, 2005 and began the journey to become the very first Armenian woman ordained minister into the United Church of Canada – maybe even in all of Canada. This was a culture shock , because women are not accepted to go into ordained ministry in the Armenian Culture and the Middle East. Therefore, the entire journey of arriving in Canada and attaining three degrees to become an ordained minister is truly a “culture shock” in itself.
Are there any specific cultural traditions that you’ve brought with you? Can you tell me about one of them or why/how you celebrate it? Why is it important to you?
One of the traditions that I honor to this day is celebrating Armenian Christmas on January 6 (Epiphany). In other words, it is the Orthodox Christmas which I hold dear to my heart but I celebrate December 25 as well. Throughout my childhood, we have celebrated Christmas on January 6, and December 25th was always referred to as the Roman Catholic Christmas (Now I know better 😊). I do cook traditional dishes and desserts as time allows to carry on these traditions.
Every tradition that we have is connected to our roots, our families, but January 6th is more than just an Armenian tradition. On January 1, 1980, my father fell into a coma as he could not breathe. He was a heavy smoker and this got him into this situation. However, after being in a coma for six days, on Sunday, January 6, 1980, on Armenian Christmas Day, my father came out of his coma, got back to his regular life, without having a one puff of a cigarette again, or being able to breathe any second-hand smoke. He passed away on December 13, 1984, while I was living in Los Angeles. Therefore, January 6, has become a multi-layered gift for me that will not be forgotten that easily.
What advice would you give to a newcomer moving from another country to Canada [or to Leeds Grenville more specifically]?
When I first arrived in Montreal, Quebec and I met other Lebanese Armenians who had arrived in Canada 5- 10 years prior to us, I used to think, “When will I be able to say, ‘I have been here for 5 years or so’?” I also used to think that our hardships will never end and we will never be able to own a car, or a house – all the goodness that people around me had.
Today, in August 2017, I am grateful to say, “This year marks the 31st anniversary of my entry to Canada”. What a gift – what an accomplishment – I am grateful to God, to the Canadian Government and to all who helped us start a life here – the Land of Milk and Honey.
Therefore, my advice to newcomers would be, “Be patient, this too shall pass and all the hard work you put in to settling in this country is worthwhile”. I have lived in Los Angeles for three years, with all its glamour and glory but I still prefer this little town of Portland, where I live now - Canada is truly the Promised Land for me, for us, for all.
What do you love about Leeds Grenville?
The beauty of nature that surrounds us and the small communities that embrace one another – There is a presence of Peace beyond my understanding. When someone is in need, the entire community stands up to offer love and care.
My mother called Canada, “The Promised Land” – the land of milk and honey – she enjoyed this land for eight short years before she passed away at the age of 64 – August 22, 1994. Today, I recognize and understand what she meant beyond what words can explain. Where I live in the Rideau Lakes Townships I am literally surrounded with milk and honey, indeed. So many bee keepers, so many dairy farms, that reminds me of my mother’s words daily and make me grateful for this land called Canada.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
There are many things I like to do in my spare time. When I am truly exhausted, I just watch television and rest – watch mindless television shows, as my vocation is demanding and draining at times. From weddings to baptisms and funerals, a minister has a big balancing act to carry on. However, there are a few things that I love to do whenever I am able to create time to do them: Scrapbooking, jigsaw puzzles, reading, writing, go for walks outdoors and indoors on a treadmill, take pictures. In August of 2016, my very first book of poetry, prayers and photography was published, it is titled: “The True Gift Lives on: Christmas Poetry, Prayers and Blessings”. All the photos in the book are taken in the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario.
I am grateful to my husband’s help and support in every way and by God’s grace I am looking forward to the publication of my memoirs, in the Spring of 2019.
As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you, while you are busy making other plans”. My Journey to Canada was a big surprise – but it is a gift that I will ALWAYS be grateful for.