Wednesday, February 14, 2007

An immigrant shares her story

FOR MaryHawa Turay and her daughters, Canada’s Governor General is more than just another government official — she’s a role model. That’s because like Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, Mrs. Turay’s family escaped a war-ravaged country and immigrated to a foreign land, overcoming incredible obstacles to build a new home on Canadian soil.

"I share her story," Mrs. Turay said Monday in Halifax, shortly after presenting Ms. Jean with a gift she designed herself — a beautiful African skirt, matching blouse and traditional head tie, all crafted from Nigerian lace.

"Her family has a similar background," Mrs. Turay, who left behind a civil war in Sierra Leone, told reporters after meeting the Queen’s representative.

"Our Excellency has gone through that and she beat the odds and she took advantage of the opportunities that are here in this country," explained Mrs. Turay, whose own family is now flourishing in Antigonish. "She came as a young girl, getting away from war — it’s the same thing."

On Monday morning, Ms. Jean began her three-day trip and first official visit to Nova Scotia at Pier 21, where thousands of immigrants first set foot in Canada.

Ms. Jean, who came to Canada in 1968 as a refugee from Haiti, shared her story with about 30 special guests — including Mrs. Turay and two of her daughters — during a round-table discussion of women immigrants to Nova Scotia, hosted by the province’s Office of Immigration. "Thank you for including me at this table," the former CBC broadcaster said with a smile after an introduction by Immigration Minister Carolyn Bolivar-Getson. "I can see that we have the world represented at the table. This is what Canada is all about."

Ms. Jean applauded the national philosophy of multiculturalism that allows people from all over the world to celebrate their diversity in Canada. But she said there remain barriers that keep immigrants, especially women, on the outside of society and unable to contribute all they have to offer.

A systemic prejudice makes it difficult for immigrants to access language and education supports, she said, adding that having foreign professional credentials recognized is also challenging and hits women from developing nations especially hard.

According to the provincial government, studies show immigrants who have arrived in Canada within the last decade have had more difficulty settling here successfully, with women having the most difficult experiences.

Ms. Jean said women play very important roles in the economies of developing countries and should have the opportunity to do the same in Canada.

Her statement was met with nods from the women around the table Monday morning.

Ms. Jean said her own mother had to work minimum-wage jobs after arriving in Canada because her professional credentials weren’t recognized. The family was starting over with nothing and some weeks her mother had to ask schools to feed her children, promising to repay them later.

Despite their hardships, Ms. Jean said her family knew Canada was their home and made an effort to put down roots. "I knew that I had a lot to give, as much as I was receiving," she said, a trace of an accent from her girlhood home still evident in her voice.

Her mother did eventually get to work as a nurse and Ms. Jean went on to teach at the University of Montreal before embarking on a celebrated broadcasting career.

Mrs. Turay and her twin daughters told a similar tale to reporters, speaking candidly of their own ongoing struggles and successes.

When she and her husband Thomas Mark Turay moved to Toronto in 1994, Mrs. Turay worked as both a dishwasher and a maid. Back in Sierra Leone, she had co-ordinated a women’s program.

"I was almost like a celebrity in my home country," she recalled. "I remember there was a time when I would be cleaning somebody’s home and I would be crying . . . because back home I had somebody cleaning my room."

It wasn’t until 2000 that their three daughters joined them in Canada and the family moved from Ontario to Nova Scotia, when Mr. Turay got a job working as a professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.

While the Turays love living in Nova Scotia, they’re still facing red tape in their fight to move their 15-year-old adopted son to Canada.

But Mrs. Turay, who now has a certificate in fashion design from George Brown College in Toronto and a business degree from St. F.X., said the small steps forward are paying off.

"It was worth it," she said. "Having this multicultural society . . . is what makes Canada really a unique country in the world. I’ve been to a few countries, but wherever I’ve been, I always feel privileged to say that I’m a Canadian."

Clara Sinah Turay, 22, admitted she found it difficult to leave her grandparents and friends behind in Sierra Leone but that heroes such as her parents and Ms. Jean push her to work hard and accomplish her goals.

"I’m really amazed by all the women here — what they went through, being here and leaving their families at home. It’s hard to do that," said the young woman, who is studying culinary arts at the Nova Scotia Community College in Port Hawkesbury. Clara said her family has come a long way since arriving in Canada.

"We are the family that you would call a survivor family," she said. "If you work together and work as one, you will survive, you will be strong."

Ms. Jean said she, too, will cherish the stories she heard at Monday’s round table, the third such meeting to gather information for the development of policies and support programs.

"I think that we’ve raised some important issues today and I think that dialogue is very, very promising," she said.

"It is so important to build that awareness of what it takes for women to settle in new countries and how much that you bring in terms of knowledge, of courage, of capacities, of talent to Canada. Knowledge and a better understanding of that reality make a great difference."

Link to The ChronicleHerald.ca