Just weeks after arriving in Canada from India, Deepa Varghese saw snow for the very first time.
“I wanted to touch it, I wanted to eat it,” she recalls of that day in 2011. “We were travelling to Toronto and I asked Mathew to pull the car over on the highway, and I was taking some snow and eating it. I was super excited. It was just flurries that day, but after one or two days it stopped snowing, and when I looked out the window it was so beautiful and so white.”
But her storybook vision of Canada took a turn for the worse when she ventured outside in attire better suited for temperate regions. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God. I don’t like this.’ The first winter was terrible. I don’t want to even think about those days.”
Yet Deepa, along with her husband, Mathew Kavunkal Easo, and their then-two-year-old son, Eby, persevered, making a new home for themselves in Belleville. Four years ago, they put something of a stamp on their residency when Elena, a sister to Eby, was born.
On the weekend, almost six years after her arrival to this country, Deepa found herself with 35 other immigrants in the National Arts Centre’s Azrieli Studio as they traded their permanent resident’s cards for the promise of passports and the right to vote.
Like Deepa, whose husband, children and parents — the latter travelling from India for the occasion — were on hand to witness and celebrate her passage to Canadianhood, friends and family (and a service dog) of each of the 35 other new Canadians were also present, half filling the 300-seat venue with an ethnic mosaic of enthusiastic camera-toting citizenry.
The three dozen new Canucks recited the oath of citizenship in unison, then were called onstage, one by one, to receive their certificates. Deepa, wearing a green, gold and magenta sari, was the first summoned, and later admitted she felt a sudden and unexpected nervousness. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but I felt a bit tense.”
Deepa described, though, just how chuffed she was that her ceremony was held in Ottawa on Canada Day.
“We were planning on going to Ottawa anyway to celebrate the 150th,” she said, “but we’re super excited that the ceremony is going to be on that day.”
Perhaps, too, her anxiety was connected to the crossroads she’d reached and the path she’d chosen to pursue: to become a Canadian.
Behind her, the others waited for their names to be called. For one reason or another, they’d left their homes in India, Colombia, Kenya, Germany, Bangladesh, China, the United States, the Philippines, Lebanon, Rwanda, Syria, Algeria, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belarus, Jordan, Cameroon, Australia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to come here to make new and better lives for themselves. “Welcome home,” noted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a video that followed remarks by ceremony hosts Rear Admiral Luc Cassivi and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
Deepa’s journey to her citizenship ceremony was, of course, a far longer one than the 270 kilometres and few hours that she and her family drove from their home that morning. It was a six-year journey that carried her more than 14,000 kilometres, farther than she’d ever travelled.
Six years ago, she took her first step — a leap of faith, really — with Mathew and Eby, venturing for her first time outside her native India. The two chose Canada, a country halfway around the world, about which she knew very little. It was Mathew’s choice, really; he liked to travel and had a friend in Canada who recommended it.
The couple was not forced out of India. They were seeking refuge from no war, no vast calamity was pressing close behind them. From middle-class families in the southern Kerala state, both had earned their master’s degrees in microbiology and had good jobs in that field.
So why leave?
“There is no proper answer for that,” said Deepa. “India is a super country. We didn’t have a bad situation in India. We just thought we’d go to a different country to see what it was like.” Canada, she notes, was only country they applied to.
“We thought ‘We’ll move to Canada and see how it is. We’ll stay for one month and if we don’t like it we’ll go back.’”
But if there was no single reason to leave India, there were enough small ones, some of them made clearer once she began to discover differences between her new home and the one she left.
“The main thing in Canada is the freedom,” she remarked. “There is no difference between men and women. They’re all the same. But in India it’s not like that. After eight o’clock in the evening in most parts of India, you will not see a girl or woman walking alone on the road. They have to be accompanied by a man — a father or a husband. It’s not a religious thing; it’s a safety thing. There are so many rape cases, so much crime, so much theft. That’s the main thing that I feel here in Canada; all women are secure. And here, men and women do all the work together, even in the kitchen. But in India, all of the housework is done by women.”
India, Deepa added, also suffers from an ingrained corruption that she was glad to leave.
The difficulties they encountered in Canada went beyond simply climate. The foods weren’t familiar, and many ingredients she was used to in India weren’t readily available here. And while she and her husband spoke English, it was not the same as the one spoken in Canada.
For these and other tribulations, they often turned to a network of 20 or so families in Belleville that had also come from Kerala. Additionally, Deepa notes, various government agencies were extremely helpful.
Finding work was their biggest hurdle. While both were granted equivalencies for their masters’ degrees, Canadian regulations prevented them from working in numerous microbiology positions without first taking a two-year “bridging course” and subsequent exam. Needing to work, however, Mathew’s took a job as a Sears customer service representative in a call centre, for about $10 an hour. Within a year, Deepa followed in his minimum-wage footsteps until Elena’s birth. These days, Mathew works as a microbiologist with Nestlé, in Mississauga, where he rents a room and sees his family on weekends. Deepa has stayed at home to raise their children, but with Elena entering kindergarten this fall, is considering a return to the work force.
When the couple arrived here in 2011, Mathew asked Deepa to give it five years. It wouldn’t be easy, he said. They would have to find jobs that likely paid less than those they had in India, and live in homes that weren’t as nice. Last year, exactly five years after their arrival, they bought a house in Belleville, and while Mathew’s work life isn’t ideal — he’d like to find something closer to home — they’re at least well enough off that Deepa doesn’t have to take the first job that comes along.
And she’s come around on Canada. “It’s beautiful, and the people are so friendly and helpful.”
Mathew noted, too, that this past winter was the first during which Deepa didn’t return to India to visit family. “I told her, ‘You can’t have your feet in both places,’” he said. “’You must choose one.’” Deepa admitted that she now, indeed, likes snow.
At the conclusion of Saturday’s ceremony, Deepa and her family milled about the NAC Studio, taking photos and enjoying a Canada flag-iced cake and lemonade. Afterwards, they headed out into the crowd of hundreds of thousands of celebrators. They would later drive to Montreal where Deepa’s aunt was expecting them, but for now, a party beckoned.
“There were times I wanted to go back,” admitted Deepa, “but Mathew loved it here so much and I wanted to be with him. And now, after six years, I love it, too. I thought, ‘I’ll spend the rest of my life here in Canada.’ And once I decided that, I had to be a citizen here.”