Immigrating: From Breakdowns to Breakthroughs

by Mumtaz Virani

Mumtaz Virani has many degrees and certificates including Islamic Studies, Education, and Sociology with specialization in Women’s Studies. For seven years she has worked with immigrant and refugee women, mostly from Afghanistan. Being a married woman with children coming from a similar value system helps to build relationships of trust with her clients.

On August 18th 2001, Aleem and Mina landed in Toronto with their daughters; 17 year-old Taz and 14 year-old Sofi. The family came from Mumbai with excellent English language skills. Aleem had a Masters in Education and Mina had completed her Masters in Sociology. The family belonged to the upper-middle class with fairly good social status.

The couple had lived and studied in England for four years before their marriage and were comfortable with Western culture, so they thought they were ready to settle successfully in Toronto. But the learning curve for the family was very steep.

Aleem went back to India to wind up the family business, but it took longer than planned, and he was unable to send money to his family in Toronto.

It was the first time in their 20-year marriage that Mina and her husband had been separated for such a long time.

In spite of her academic qualifications, Mina had not been successful in getting a job. Mina and her girls lived with Aleems brother, who supported them. It was difficult to come to terms with depending on someone else for their living. Mina had to face many new challenges without her husband’s support. Shouldering the responsibility of guiding her teenage daughters in a very different culture created huge emotional pressures.

January 21st, 2002
“Trrrr..ing, trrr…ing.” The phone rang.
Mina was in the kitchen. Taz ran to answer it.
“Mom, Joshua wants to play tennis this evening. He is willing to coach me,” says Taz.
“Who else is going?” asked Mina.
After hesitating, Taz responded that Joshua would be coming alone. Mina refused permission for Taz to go alone with Joshua.
A couple of minutes later, Taz came back into the kitchen and Mina asked about the outcome of the phone conversation.
“Joshua said he did not want to go out with a girl whose mother didn’t trust her daughter with him,” said Taz.
Mina brooded over the incident. She felt that Taz could have been more tactful in handling the situation.
Taz had met Joshua at a friends party 10 days earlier. Taz had told her mother that Joshua was Mituls boyfriend, but at the party he was more interested in Taz than in Mitul. This was a major reason for Mina’s caution.

Taz and Sofi had thought of Mina as very liberal in her views. In Mumbai, Taz had quite a few friends who were boys. Taz was proud that she was the only girl in her circle of friends whose parents were so broadminded in allowing her to go out with boys. Now, the situation had changed. She did not understand why, and interpreted this as a lack of trust in her.

The girls were facing their own challenges in adapting to a new school environment. They wanted to be seen as ‘Canadians’ rather than as immigrants. They had to prove that they were academically capable. A growing challenge for Taz was the need to be considered attractive to the opposite sex.

February 7th 2002
The girls approached their mom together.
“Can we get tattoos?” asked Sofi.
“Please Mom,” said Taz. “I will get mine in a spot which won’t be seen.”
“Mommy…just a little butterfly……at the back of my shoulder…..where no one can even see it,” continued Sofi.

The girls had hoped that Mina would agree to their joint request. She had always been clear that there was nothing wrong with tattoos. But she was uncomfortable with the idea of them getting something so permanent on a whim because of peer pressure.

Mina was concerned about the way her daughters were becoming more and more influenced by their friends. This was her first experience of interacting with the new culture as a mother and her instinctive reaction was to reject all that was new to her. It was easy to say ‘no’ to anything and everything, but she knew that was not the correct approach. To be able to play an active role in her children’s day-to-day decision making she had to pick her battles wisely.

“Why you want to get them done?” asked Mina.
“It looks so cool, Mummy. Rebecca has a cute butterfly on her neck and it looks beautiful,” said Sofi.
“Ok,” Mina said. “Let’s get it done, but it is winter, so no one would see them anyway. If you still feel like doing it at the beginning of the new school year in September, then we will get it done.”

Taz and Sofi did not feel disappointed, as they trusted their mother’s commitment to get it done in the fall. September arrived and passed, then October and November, but the girls did not mention tattoos. They had gotten over their first impression and peer influence by then. Mina was happy and they were not unhappy.

April 15th 2002
Mina entered her apartment with groceries. She was very tired, since she was not used to physical work at all. Back in Mumbai she had always had two maids to help her with the housework. She was cursing herself for deciding to move to Canada when the family had enjoyed such a good economic and social standing in Mumbai.

As she entered, she saw Taz and Sophie painting a picture.

Looking up at her mom Taz declared with confidence, “I am running for Vice President of the Student Council at my school. We have elections in two weeks and I have to make posters.”

Mina was pleasantly surprised by Taz’s declaration. Was this the same girl who hardly spoke in class in India? Who could not even talk to her teachers? Whenever Mina went for parent teacher meetings in Mumbai, one comment that she got from all her teachers was that Taz needed to speak up much more. Taz had few friends in school until she came to Toronto. Now, after seven months, she was standing for Vice President. What had brought about such a change?

Since starting at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, Taz had been active in various clubs and groups. Mina had noticed this change silently, but today with Taz’s decision she was very surprised. Something was certainly right about this school. The decision to participate in Student Council elections was proof of her growing confidence in herself.

Suddenly Mina was left with no doubt that her decision to migrate to Canada would truly improve her children’s future.

Hearing Taz deliver a rousing speech in the school assembly hall, packed with 800 students, Mina could hardly believe her eyes. Taz appeared as a fluent public speaker, communicating with the audience with confidence. At that moment Mina missed Aleem the most. Often, in the past, she and Aleem had discussed Taz’s uncommunicative tendencies, so only the two of them would have been able to appreciate the immense change that had occurred in Taz’s personality.

June 5th 2002
“Joshua is having a birthday party on Friday. Mommy, can I go?” Taz asked as she was leaving for school.

Before Mina could respond, Taz continued, “I have to reply to him today.”

Mina was busy preparing breakfast and lunch for the girls, so she did not want to get into a long discussion, but the name ‘Joshua ‘ raised questions in her mind.

“No, I don’t want you to go.”

Taz bristled at this answer. “I knew you would say ‘no’. You just do not trust me. You do not like my friends. You do not think that I can make appropriate decisions. I am tired of you doubting me all the time!”

Mina was shocked by the violence of Taz’s reaction. She had not known how Taz felt about the logic behind her decisions. Mina wanted them to think of her as a supportive mother, not as someone who was unreasonable and biased. Sofi had not entered this discussion but Mina knew that Taz’s opinions always influenced Sofi’s thinking.

Coming from an East Indian tradition, a 17 year old daughter is not expected to be independent. But Mina knew that in Canada, the interactions were very different. Taz had made friends with a few Canadians and Mina wanted to be a supportive mother so she had allowed Taz to have some sleepovers with her friends on weekends. Meeting them had helped Mina to know who these friends were and how they behaved. She did not agree with some of their mannerisms but kept quiet because she could understand the pressures of a new environment on her girls and the stress that it created.

But this time, Mina’s instant reaction was anger. “What response do you expect from me? If I say ‘yes’ I am not doing my duty as a mother. Without more information my response would be like flipping a coin and I cannot put your safety at stake by making any decisions blindly. If I say ‘no’ you think I don’t trust you. What am I supposed to do?”

Now it was Taz’s turn to be shocked by her mother’s reaction. Mina took Taz by her hands and questioned her.
“What is the occasion for the party?
“Who are the organizers?
“What time will it start and when will it end?
“Who is invited?
“What is the location? Is it in somebody’s home?
“What is the actual program? Dinner? Dancing?
“Who will accompany you to the party?
“Who will bring you back?
“Next time before you ask for my permission to attend any party, make sure that you have all the facts,” said Mina. “I will not question any of your decisions as long as you can answer those questions. That’s it!”

 Taz never went for a party after that without getting details of the arrangements and Mina never questioned her choice. This was the first brick laid in building the new relationship between the mother and the daughter in Canada.

Gaining clarity about such insignificant events and the decision making process took six months to happen. In a new environment it has to be a conscious learning process and can become a bone of contention in relationships if not worked through and resolved.

Mina was able to overcome these initial challenges successfully and eventually make a happy home life for herself and her family in Canada.

CNM