Celebrating immigrants

According to Regina, June 25th was Immigrant Day. In her blog, she wrote a very poignant account of her own experiences as an immigrant and how immigration made her a citizen of the world, more open to new cultures and influences. She inspired me to pencil down my own thoughts on the subject since I too feel that immigrating to Canada ultimately made me feel like a citizen of the world.

Although I have undying admiration for immigrants, I have to admit that I never really thought of myself as one. Of course I am one. An immigrant is usually defined as a person who leaves her country to permanently settle in another country. I did that. It’s just that I never consciously defined myself as an immigrant. I don’t really like labels, I find them too constricting and I usually think of myself as…just myself… I don’t think of myself as a woman, or a Brazilian or an immigrant. But of course I know I am all of these things and am not denying it at all.

I can definitely understand why would someone conceptualize himself as an immigrant. I mean, most people have immigration on their minds for a fairly long time before they actually move to a different country. They spend years planning their move and thinking about immigration. Many fret about how they are going to be received in the new country, what sort of opportunities they’ll find, how hard the cultural barrier will be….  It’s only natural that when they finally arrive in their new destination, they are sensitive to their condition as immigrant.

During my first few months in Montreal, I took advantage of intensive French classes for immigrants. I hadn’t met many immigrants before then since most of the people I knew I had met through Alan and they were either Canadian or people who had been in Canada for so many years that they didn’t even talk about that process anymore. But the French school in Montreal really broadened the way I saw the world and the cultures that inhabit it. My views of the immigration process and immigrants in general were shaped by that experience. At the school, I spent five hours per day with immigrants from all over the world – China, Korea, Yemen, Sri-Lanka, India, Holland, Russia, Romenia, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Iran – there were people from all over! Becaused we were there from 9-3 every day, we had lunch at school; we would usually sit together in large communal tables and talk about our lives while sharing our homemade foods.  I was fascinated to learn what people ate at home in places like Korea, Peru or China. I also became quickly aware at the amount of sacrifice people had to make to immigrate to Canada. Most of them had stable, good jobs in their home countries but decided to leave because they didn’t feel that conditions in their countries were good enough to guarantee a modicum of quality of life to their children. It made me realize that most of us in the world are quite similar – we all want regular meals, a job, health and a future for our children. All the preconceived ideas I might have had of people of different nationalities collapsed one by one.

At the same time, I didn’t feel I deserved to be called an immigrant. I hadn’t sacrificed enough. I had merely met someone, fallen in love, and moved to where he lived. This place happened to be in a different country and we had to go through a bit of a bureaucratic loop to get my situation as resident cleared, but to me it didn’t feel much different than all the many other moves I had done within my own country. Brazil is a very large country, with very different regional flavours, accents, and customs. I had grown up having to adapt to new environments. At 6 years old I moved with my family to the US for a year. The experience marked me very deeply. I loved speaking a different language and my whole life, after the day we came back to Brazil, I dreamed of living abroad for a while. I didn’t really think of immigrating, I just wanted to travel the world (still do!). So, moving to Canada wasn’t particularly hard or different for me. Sure, I was away from my family. But so was I when I lived in Brasilia and my parents lived in Recife, one brother in the Amazon and another in Rio. Thousands of kilometers separated us then and I spent 2 years without seeing my older brother. I didn’t have a structured life in Brazil yet when I met Alan. I was attending university in a degree I didn’t particularly enjoy. I graduated but took the opportunity to start afresh in Canada.

In Canada, I never really had to think of myself as an immigrant. With the exception of passports and voting rights, there’s no distinction made in Canada between permanent residents and Canadian citizens. I entered the same line-ups as Alan did, had the same ID cards (health care, social security, etc), the same access to education… My professors treated me the same as any other student and gave me every opportunity to succeed. Both as an undergrad and as a grad student, nobody ever thought I knew less because I wasn’t educated here. I had the same opportunities as my Canadian friends and got support for my studies from many Canadian institutions long before I acquired Canadian citizenship. In Canada I was made to feel I was an individual that depended only on myself to succeed. I felt all my efforts were recognized.

Before anybody contradicts what I’m saying, I don’t want you to think that’s the experience of every immigrant that comes to this country. I know there are flaws in the system and many immigrants go through considerable hardship. Particularly if they had an established life and career where they lived and want to transplant that here. I’m just sharing my own experience.

While I had a positive adaptation and felt welcomed in Canada, I still hadn’t thought much about immigration until I moved to Spain last year. Canada is a country that for better or for worse has adopted the concept of multiculturalism and immigration as part of its own core identity. Immigration itself is never perceived or talked about as a problem. The problem is often how to better integrate immigrants into the workforce, how to simplify the immigration process, etc. In much of Europe all hears is how to prevent or control immigration, how to deal with illegal immigrants, etc. One hears clear distinctions on the street between “them” and “us”. I was shocked to see that even European citizens, from countries on the EU, who had their legal residence in Spain, were differentiated from local citizens. Their ID card was different – while Spaniards had an ID card with the word “España” on it, other Europeans had an ID card of a different colour with the word “Extranjero” in big letters. They also had to go through different line ups to apply for social security numbers and the like. I’m not making any judgment on Spanish or Catalan attitude towards foreigners – I was always welcomed and treated well – but this sort of institutional differentiation (don’t want to use the word “marginalization”) left someone like me, who has studied ethnic conflict for a while, with a bad taste in the mouth.

In Barcelona I met people from every continent and I made close friendship with people from various countries. Being there also made me think of how our world is in an interesting spot right now. People are moving like never before – although they have always moved a lot – and immigration will probably mark the future for all the wealthiest countries in the world. You can’t fight it. For as long as the world has been inhabited, people have moved to where they can find a better life. And when they move, they build and invest in their new homes with renewed energy. I think the key to stability and growth in the future will be for governments to teach their citizens that immigration is a positive contribution to the improvement of their own society. Maybe as people travel more and are exposed to different cultures they’ll realize that nationality, religion, even language, is nothing more than a varnish that cover common human values, and that one can often have more in common with people born in the other side of the world than with their own fellow countrymen…

Forgive my long, twisted ramble… And please, let us not get into discussions along the lines of “Canada, the Good vs Europe/US, the Bad”. Different countries have different histories, different stages of development, and different contexts for the policies they adopt. I merely wanted to share with you my experiences as an immigrant and my views of immigration…