February 21, 2011
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
On Jan. 16, Pope Benedict gave an address for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. He talked about the need for Christians to be welcoming to those from other lands. Globalization is leading the planet into increasing interconnectedness.
The pope said we all "belong to one family, migrants and the local populations that welcome them."
Those words were ringing in my ears less than a week later as I stood in a room with 81 other immigrants to Canada as we were sworn in as new citizens.
I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever become an immigrant. I grew up hearing stories about my immigrant ancestors. Dangerous sea voyages, escaping from religious persecution or famines, building colonies, and facing all manner of hardships, were not my experiences.
The worst thing I dealt with was a weather-delayed flight causing a 4 a.m. arrival.
MOSAIC OF NEWCOMERS
Many of the people who became citizens the same day I did, worked and planned for years to come to Canada, or came here as refugees escaping horrors I can only imagine. Some came from countries that no longer exist.
Until I met my future husband, I knew very little about Canada. Like many Americans, what little I thought I knew about Canada was mostly wrong.
When Austin told me he lived in Alberta, which was north of Montana, I was dumbfounded. I didn't think anyone could live north of Montana except polar bears. Now that Alberta is my home, I'm still waiting for my first polar bear sighting.
I may not have been fleeing a war zone, but it still wasn't easy to uproot my entire life, leave behind my friends and family, and even my dog, to come to Canada. I did it for love. I was willing to give up pretty much anything to be with my husband.
Immigration can be expensive and time consuming. You have to be open to having your background entirely exposed. I had to pass local, state and FBI background checks in the United States, and RCMP and CSIS checks here in Canada. I had to list every address I have lived at since I was 18 years old.
I had to have my fingerprints taken twice and pass a medical exam to make sure I wouldn't be a danger to public health. I had to be willing to answer any question the immigration officer asked, no matter how personal or embarrassing.
The questions from immigration officers were easy in comparison to the questions asked by my husband's friends and family.
Why would someone living on the beach in Florida move to Edmonton in January? Some were convinced I was a terrorist. Some believed that I must be an embezzler on the run from the law. Some even believed I was only interested in Austin's money. Those who took the time to get to know me, can laugh with me about it now.
After being sworn in as a citizen, everyone gleefully welcomed me to Canada. The fact that I haven't stepped foot out of the country in more than five years, made the welcome kind of anti-climactic.
I had already been welcomed warmly by the Catholic community of St. Alphonsus, especially the members of the Catholic Women's League. I've been integrated into the student body of Newman Theological College where being from someplace else is the norm rather than the exception. I've learned to deal with the metric system.
DANCING ON ICE
The one thing that still eludes me is how to walk on the ice without damaging my dignity.
When the process became difficult, I tried to remember other immigrants who persevered in dramatically more difficult circumstances. Abraham was asked by God to leave his native land, Joseph entered Egypt as a slave but rose to the right hand of Pharaoh, Moses had to flee from the house of Pharaoh to be a refugee in Midian, and even Jesus spent part of his early life as a foreigner in Egypt.
Someone asked me recently if it was all worth it. My answer was an overwhelming yes. It was a great feeling walking out of Canada Place that afternoon, knowing that no matter what happens in the future, I'll never have to be separated from my husband by a man-made border.
(Catherine Mardon is a retired attorney and author. She is working on her master's degree at Newman Theological College, and serves as president of the Catholic Women's League at St. Alphonsus Parish.)
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