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.