Like all Canadians, I am fascinated and horrified by the news of desperate refugees seeking asylum in Canada.
It boggles my mind.
I am transfixed. These stories are too close to my heart. Over thirty years ago I came to Canada as a young refugee, but to get here I had to first walk over sand, not snow. I left my native Iran in the middle of the night, crossed the most dangerous desert in the world and made my way to Pakistan where I lived an uneasy life for nearly a year, a reluctant guest of the United Nations Political Refugee program. I eventually made my way to Canada on an Alitalia jet and at the airport in Montreal I made my declaration of intent known to the RCMP immigration officers who promptly detained me.
Not much separates me from those frightened refugees who trudge through waist deep snow to get to Canada. Not much separates them from the refugees who tried to escape Hitler’s Europe and find haven here. When asked how many Jews could be accepted during the terrible years of Hitler’s reign, representatives of the Canadian government famously replied, “None is too many”. It was believed that Jews could not or would not be assimilated, nor would they change their ways to adapt to their new country.
When I reflect on this chapter in the Canadian story, I always feel stunned. I see the Jewish community as diverse, respectful, traditional and modern. We defy one-word descriptions. We are complex. Why are the new refugees any less?
In the 1940s, Canada was a predominantly Christian society lead by white European men. When I arrived forty years later, it was still predominantly white and Christian but the word “Jew” had earned some respect in the increasingly diverse Canadian landscape. I came here, secure in the knowledge that as a member of a minority I was entitled to live life as I chose, to adapt and modify my ways to the Canadian ethic and to create a healthy life for myself, always respecting the values of others.
I delighted in Canadian freedoms. I was glad to leave behind the “one size fits all” of Iranian life, where everything, from music to literature to style of dress was controlled by the religious government.
I came here prepared to work hard. Just turned eighteen, I spoke only Farsi. I had neither family nor friends in Canada and neither money nor contacts. Canadian and Jewish agencies guided and supported me as I went to school, worked several jobs and learned Canadian ways.
I faced challenges. Life was at times hard and austere, confusing and lonely. But it was always good because I was living life as a free person and learning how to be Canadian.
All refugees are running from something and today those crossing the invisible border are running to us, the Canadians of 2017. Where once Canadian officials slammed the door, we now welcome the lost and oppressed.
Are we afraid of these new immigrants? Apparently some of us are. When we welcome refugees we need to integrate people of different faith and culture, some of whom have different attitudes towards women, health care and child rearing. They may hold different political views and they come with their own prejudices. We certainly do.
But if history shows us anything, it shows us that human beings adapt. The current American president comes from German stock. The one before him had a Kenyan father. Our own prime minister has French Canadian, English, Scottish and Dutch forbears. He is quintessentially Canadian in his expression of the importance of human rights and freedoms.
When I read stories of these terrified refugees, I wonder what other Canadians think. I am sure some are compassionate, while others fear potential terrorists and welfare loafers. Some focus on a possible economic burden, saying that charity begins at home. Others see eventual economic growth from the influx of new immigrants.
I came here, determined to make a place for myself. I knew I was not going to be a burden. I came here to learn what it means to be Canadian, to embrace two new languages, to learn new ways. It was my intention to work hard and repay Canada and Canadians for every kindness, good deed and act of support.
And I have.
Forty years ago Vietnamese and Romanians came to our borders. In later years, we received waves of asylum seekers from El Salvador and other South American points. Thirty years ago, I arrived. Canada has always kept its doors open to newcomers who want to join the Canadian way of life.
It’s hard to change worlds. I struggled with my new reality. I remembered the sweetness of my home country but I had no desire to replicate Iran’s terror, intolerance and oppression. I fled Iran for the opportunities here and I was free to choose for myself how much of my Iranian past I took with me. I chose to embrace Canadian freedom because I wanted to be the captain of my own life. I did not want the government to control who I befriended, what I studied, what music I listened to and how I presented myself to the world. If there were things I did not like about Canada, I accepted them. I did not expect people to adapt to my needs, upbringing and desires and nor should any immigrant or refugee. I left because I needed change and change I found here in Canada. To all those who enter Canada they must learn what it means to be Canadian and the values that entails, we are all free to practice as we please in our personal life, but for the respect of all Canadians the charter of rights prevails.
Thirty years later, I am Canadian to the bone: my background is diverse but my focus is laser- sharp; nobody can touch my freedom. I live in a world of diversity and I respect that we are bound by our shared desire to live with dignity and to express our individuality. We have no right to impose our values on other Canadians but we do share the common ethic of respect and tolerance. We live and let live, within the framework of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which clearly accepts that the human being is entitled to self-expression, self-control and acceptance.
Integration is not a new concept to Canadians, we have always embraced it and we shall continue to allow it to thrive within our diverse society. Remember, for all of us to feel at home, we must not change the rules of the house.
Dr. Sima Goel is the author of “Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran.”