I still remember the day we got on a bus in Belgrade which was taking us to Budapest airport, in an overnight trip. It was October 25th, 1993. My brother was three weeks away from turning one. My sister and I, ten and eleven years old, respectively. Our parents, unsure of their decision for our family, put on a confident face for us. I don’t doubt it was a difficult decision to make but there wasn’t another choice. I mean my parents were two different religions, our family was living as refugees in Serbia, receiving food and help from the Red Cross, with no secure job prospect for my dad, and no home to return to in Bosnia. At that time, Bosnia was the worst place to be – war doesn’t have a pretty face or a happy outcome…for anyone – and we didn’t have money. (I wrote about some of the feelings being a refugee brought on here: http://wp.me/p1AZhb-1G )
I remember feeling sad about leaving yet another set of friends and another school. I was also scared – we were leaving to go to a country where people spoke English, not Serbo-Croatian, and although I had studied English in school for about a year, it wasn’t my mother tongue. (An irony of life – although I am fluent both in written and spoken Serbo-Croatian, I now for the most part communicate, and even think, in English.)
We weren’t the only family on the bus and I think I slept for most of it.
My first time of being at an airport was….weird actually. It was just a really big place and for some reason I distinctly remember the luggage carts and our own luggage. We were moving to a new country in two suitcases – one small and one medium size – and I think two or three white, blue and red square nylon bags (picture large reusable bags you can buy at a Winners or a Marshall’s), heavy with clothes and well secured all around with wide tape. It wasn’t even packing tape.
The plane was big I remember. If I remember correctly, it had three rows of seats – three seats together on either end and four in the middle – and there was a top-level as well at the front part of the plane. I remember my dad explaining the type of plane we were travelling on because my brother got a little plastic blow-up version of it to keep him occupied.
One important event that happened on the plane that day stays as one beautiful memory in my heart. Remember, I am eleven years old and on a plane for the first time in my life, en route to a strange country. We are coming from poverty, literally. Food was scarce, although we had help from neighbours and some friends, we hadn’t eaten anything ‘fancy’ in about a year and a half. (Side story: We were separated from my dad for about six months, and were reunited in October of 1992, less than a month before my brother come into the world. During that time, my mom reached out to very close family friends in Slovenia for help who brought us baby clothes and necessities for my brother, clothes for us and tons of chocolates, candies and sweets! It felt like our birthdays were all celebrated on that one day we received these gifts.) So on the plane that day my dad purchased the most beautiful, wonderful, amazing gift we’ve received, to commemorate our journey to this new place we only knew of by name. I think it was the biggest Toblerone bar I’ve ever seen. It was heavy and in a triangular-shaped gold package. It was bigger than a gold bar for us. I don’t think we even opened it on the plane – we just stared at it in amazement of the promise this new place may bring to our family. That moment my dad was the greatest dad in the whole wide world.
Our flight to Toronto seemed never-ending. My brother, despite being only 11 months old, was a great little traveller. I remember being amazed at plane food – it was so cute the way it was packaged and how little it was.
When we landed, after collecting our bags, there was someone who was waiting for us and other families aboard that flight who also immigrated to Canada that day. The lady who welcomed us actually spoke our language. I remember we were ushered into a room that had all these polyester-filled coats of bright colours and black thick rubber boots and we had to choose one of each, for each of us. I remember thinking “Why are they giving us such heavy-duty boots?” but I understood once the first snow hit. (Side note: 1993 was a particularly bad winter for many parts of Canada. I remember snow being as high as my waist for most of that winter.)
All the coats and boots we were given were placed into clear plastic bags and along with our suitcases and taped white, blue and red nylon bags, thrown in the back of a school bus…which we boarded in the evening hours of October 26th, 1993, the day we landed in Canada.
That bus ride was rough…bumpy and it gave me motion sickness. When the bus stopped in front of a big house I wasn’t really sure where we were or what they were going to do with us there. I remember it was extremely cold when we stepped off the bus. All of our bags/luggage was added to everyone else’s who arrived that evening and it blocked the entry into the building. I remember feeling scared and unsure of these strangers who were smiling at us, and putting us through, what felt like yet another conveyor belt, while they figured out who was who and what room each family was to be assigned to. (Side story: Noah’s was the name of this particular reception centre for refugee immigrants to Canada. I believe it was one of three in Toronto at that time. Noah’s was located at Jarvis St and Gerrard St in downtown Toronto. In 1993, it wasn’t exactly the area you’d want to be walking around once it got dark. Noah’s doesn’t exist today. I walked along Jarvis a few weeks ago and in its place now stands a townhouse complex.)
The place smelled funny to me. I cannot associate that smell to anything describable except that it didn’t smell like home. Not that I remembered what our home in Bosnia smelled like anymore but I remembered what my grandparents’ home smelled like and this place didn’t smell like that. It was strange. There were people of all kinds of colours and cultures there. I didn’t understand this place at all.
Our room was dark but large. We had a set of bunk beds where my sister and I decided to sleep, a queen size bed for my parents and a twin size bed that was presumably intended for my brother but he was too little to sleep on it by himself.
After our things were placed in our room, we were invited to head downstairs to the cafeteria to eat. Dinner was over hours ago but the kitchen had left us plates of food from that evening.
I sat across my mother as plates of chicken and green sautéed peas was placed in front of us. The dinner was lukewarm. I didn’t like how it smelled. Bland, with a strange aftertaste, it didn’t taste like my mother’s peas. I placed the fork down. I looked at my mother as tears started falling down my face and said “I want to go home.”. I can look at that little girl now and understand what she felt and why she said that. I can also now appreciate how difficult it must have been for my mother to hear those words, to deal with them, and understand the weight it brought to her heart. We had no home to return to. We had no other place to go. We didn’t even have a choice at this point.
Those peas was my last memory of that day. I’ve felt out-of-place many times since then, while living here. I remember that the smells of different foods, the street, the schools we attended, the cafeterias were hard for me to get used to. It was all so strange. But nineteen years goes by in the blink of an eye. I look back and think, “I am SO grateful to our parents for bringing us here and giving us choices.”. War doesn’t leave people with much of a choice. But our parents gave us back that. We were given another opportunity for life. Another chance to have a go at it. I cannot even imagine who I would be or where I would be right now if October 26th, 1993 didn’t happen the way it happened. I thank you Canada.