“We go to Canada for a new life, and you go back the other way,” says my grandfather with a mixture of sadness and humour.
I have repeated this line countless times over the past few years, and it was the first thing I thought of when I was asked to participate in this year’s Refugee Week Scotland. The theme of this year’s event is "Home: what does it mean to you?" Organizers have been asking bloggers around Scotland to share their thoughts about “home.”
My grandfather had been referring to his and my grandmother’s decision to leave Germany in 1958 and make a go of life in Canada. After the war, life was not the same. For my mother’s parents, it meant using false papers to get across the border into West Germany in 1951, with my then one-year-old mother. Already not able to go home, my grandfather began to dream of a new life for his family. He taught himself English and journeyed to Canada by boat, finding work wherever he could and generally getting things organized for my grandmother to follow six months later with my mother and my aunt.
Years later in 1989 when the wall came down, we sat around the television watching the news. My grandparents cried. Then came the fear that other people who had fled to the west before the wall, would come back and claim their properties. Our family was lucky - no one claimed the house they had called home for decades.
For my paternal grandfather, it was a similar story of having no home to return to. He grew up in a small town in what had been Prussia, but after the war that part of the world belonged to Poland. Already cut lose from the section of the earth he had known, after several years he simply saw no reason to stay. He took a job on a farm in Ontario, and many months later my father, then five years old, followed on a boat to Canada with his mother.
My family recently celebrated 50 years in Canada. So after all of that struggle, all of that working for a new life, why did I pick up and move to Scotland? And why do I stay? I have not been displaced by war, I am not threatened by my government for my beliefs. Other immigrants who have left their countries not by choice but by necessity, look at me quizzically and say “but…Canada is a GOOD country,” implying that once you’ve made it to a free, safe place, why leave?
That’s the difference between being an immigrant and being a refugee. The difference between my being drawn to Scotland and all of its history, gorgeous stones and haunting music, and the story of the Iraqi man I met in Oslo, who had left his country because of the war and who was waiting in agony through each and every long day, hoping that things would improve so that he could go home again without fear of violence.
My mom tells me of how her and her sister’s journey to trying to fit in in their new country, included practicing their pronunciation of “Toronto” in the Canadian way, so that it slurred together like “tor-on-no.”
Last week I met a man from Poland who has lived in Glasgow for five years. His accent is littered with Scottish phrases like “alright - on you go then.” I realized that he and I are doing the same thing: trying to hang pieces of Scotland from our accents, trying to fit in so that when we speak, we won’t be immediately hit with the question we have already had to answer so many times: “Where are you from? How did you get here? Why did you come here?”
We are lucky, this Polish man and I. Our white skin helps us to blend into the crowd, and it is only when we speak that we are recognized as being different. Those with brown skin probably get asked for their stories a lot more than white European immigrants. Or worse - they don’t get asked their stories. They are stared at instead, layers of silent judgement cast over them like a matador’s cape.
I love reminding people of the substantial influence that Scottish immigrants have had around the world. I tell them of how often I moved around British Columbia, and how no matter if the town was small, or if the January snows were piling up, somehow, somewhere, someone would be holding a Burns Supper.
And I love to ask people who have left Scotland for new shores, where they consider their home to be. Some say it will always be Scotland, while others say they are completely at home in their new country. Most just can’t imagine being without either place in their lives. Despite being in Canada for so long, my father’s mother still refers to Germany as “home” and she still gets emotional if she thinks too long about it. But at the same time, she wouldn't want to move back there. “Too many people,” she says.
So where is my home? Like many immigrants, I can’t decide. I think about the ranching country of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, and the smell of the willows and the pines in the spring, and there is a pain in my chest that brings tears to my eyes.
But the same thing happens when I walk to work in the morning, and see the Scottish Saltire flying above the government buildings, and Edinburgh castle jutting out atop a mountain of ancient volcanic rock, bold and black like it was carved from the stone itself.
It happens when I think of my friends and family, especially my grandmother, because I feel guilty for not being there. But then I think of JP and our glorious adventures around this little country, and a flush of love pulses through me that is so strong it feels like it will cause my bones to dissolve.
This is what I have learned: Home is the place that makes your heart lurch like the squeaky stair that betrays your presence to a silent household. That’s home. But it doesn’t have to be just one place. It can be two or even more. And it can be a person, someone with whom the world seems to be set to right. Someone with whom you would face any foe.
Here are the photos I promised to post:
The Cariboo’s beautiful Lac des Roches in the autumn:
And a view in the Highlands around Fort William during the same time of year:
A ferry pulling into the harbour on B.C.’s West Coast:
And a view out to the wide Atlantic in the far north of Scotland:
My father (that’s him in the sailor suit and hat) and his mother on the boat, about to leave for Canada. My grandmother’s sister is in the foreground with her daughter.
And part of our ever-expanding clan in Canada:
Thanks to Refugee Week Scotland for asking me to be involved in this fantastic project. I am so, so grateful to be living in this country. Refugee Week runs from 15-21 June and you can learn all about it here, or by taking a look at their YouTube channel.
A Day Out.
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