Immigrating: Loss of status

By Aruna Papp, MA, ADR, Med

Aruna Papp is Executive Director at The CARE Centre for Internationally Educated Nurses in Toronto.

Last weekend I met with someone I had not seen in 25 years. As new immigrants, both our families were in the process of establishing ourselves in a new country. Each family had taken a different path to resettling in our chosen homeland. Looking back, I can clearly see the paths we chose, the journey we have traveled, and how we ended up where we are now.

For me, everything was new and exciting. There were new discoveries and I was like a sponge wanting to learn all I could. Sleeping seemed like a waste of time. My children took on the same outlook. There were free ESL classes and school was free for the children. In school, children had the opportunity to learn how to swim, take part in drama and sports. They went on field trips. I encouraged them to take part in everything and do and experience as much as they could. They watched me with pride as I attended university non-stop for 20 years.

In time I learned that if I needed something, I could ask, and the majority of people were willing to provide information or make suggestions. When there were barriers, I went around them; or made a path through them. Not attending university was never an option for my children.

My friend on the other had was telling me how miserable her life had been for the past 25 years. She told me with a lot of anger and frustration, "When I married 25 years ago I married an air-force officer. Back home we had a huge house filled with servants. Before I could put a foot on the floor my maid would run and put my slippers under my feet. I never washed a glass in my life and now for the past 20 years I have been married to a TTC driver." Soon her loud voice attracted other people's attention. She continued, "I have not returned to visit my parents in the old country because we are so humiliated and ashamed of what we have become. How can we show our face to our friends? Our servants will laugh at us. I am so home sick but I know I can never return, that makes it worse for me. My family has told stories about our success to save face, but I don't think I can face anyone. The most difficult thing is that each night after work my husband comes home and gets drunk in order to forget his shame and there is nothing I can do about it."

This woman continued to tell me that her husband receives very good pay from TTC. They have a big house. The children have designer clothes but she said that she was very disappointed in them because they had turned out to be 'very Canadian children.' As teenagers, her children were into their music and their friends. As they became young adults they did not care at all about how their parents were 'feeling.'

She wanted to blame someone for the misfortune that she felt her life had become; so she blamed her children, her husband, the friend who recommended they move to Canada and above all she blamed Canada for all her problems

Unfortunately, this woman is not alone. In the old country she and her husband viewed themselves as 'upper-middle class.' They thought their life style was envied by thousands. A friend suggested that they should move to Canada because life is better; so they packed up and left.

Like them, thousands of immigrants are contacted by recruiters and head-hunters who charge large amount of money for a passage to a better life in Canada. They target doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals with stories of wealth and success. Media stories in Canada often focus on the highly educated professional who is now a cab driver, factory worker or dishwasher. I believe, if given an opportunity, they would all want to enhance their education and get back into their professions. However in order to support themselves and their families they need to find work, any type of work. Many of them support family members in the old country and some have to do two, even three jobs just to make ends meet. At the end of the week when they have completed their 'jobs' they have little or no energy left. How can they attend a class or plan on recertification?

Many immigrants have not only lost their profession and their professional status. They have lost much more. They lost their status as a good provider, dependable husband, successful son or daughter, person worth respecting, 'someone with a safe and secure old age'; but most importantly they have lost faith in their abilities, their self-worth and their self-respect. And there are those like my friend's husband, who has just given up and taken up drinking.

Yet when we look around, there are many who have gone through recertification and educational enhancement programs and have become successful in their professions.

So what is the difference between my friend and those who are successful in their pursuit of success? I think in many cases it might be attitude. Those who hang on to their past glories suffered, and their attitudes became barriers. Others rolled up their sleeves, determined to have a successful career, put in their sweat and tears. They did not give up on themselves, they took on the challenges, they adjusted their priorities and they did not care what people thought of them as they were going through resettlement. Then there is another point to consider, which is that maybe some of us have unreasonable expectations. For example, 99% of the people in Canada, those who are born here, those who see themselves as 'well off' and even those who are upper middle class do not live the kind of life style my friend was accustomed to in the old country. Would a million dollar income each year make her content? And what are her plans for making this kind of income?

In Canada there are many opportunities, and there are just as many barriers to these opportunities. It is not an easy road but there are many settlement services available to new immigrants and it is important to ask for help. However, one of the barriers we do have control over is our attitude. As we begin our lives in our chosen home we need to have a plan, a realistic plan for ourselves and our families, where do we want to be five years from now? How are we going to do this? Which member of the family has what responsibilities? Are we worried about what people will say? Then what will be the result of that pressure? Are we competing with families who came here long before us and have become better established/ I think having reasonable expectations of ourselves and are family are as important as the expectations from our new homeland.

CNM