Save your pity

Migrants don’t need your pity, or their own

Rehearsal came to its unfortunate close. Laughing and joking, we wrapped up our first “Greased Lightening” performance. We were doing a tribute to Broadway that year, creating a grand mixture of some of the greatest songs and dances to have graced the coveted stage. It had taken me a while, but I finally felt as though I had found my niche during my first year at the all-American Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School, located in the bustling and quaint town of Port Washington on Long Island. My once-foreign features were made familiar when I joined a more diverse crowd. I was Latino, Italian, Persian, or Greek; I wasn’t the new Pakistani girl in a primarily Jewish elementary school anymore. Middle school, Grades 6-8, allowed for an automatic maturation. There were more opportunities for me to create my American dream: chorus, drama, chess club, student council, yearbook. I delved into any student club for which I could find time and interest. While unaware of my subconscious intentions at the time, this was how I was going to be finally accepted as the American I had always believed I was. The Baby-sitters Club books and Nickelodeon had taught me well: I was going to be a mixture between Mary Anne and Clarissa.

Exhausted but combusting with energy, I said my goodbyes and acknowledged friends with reassuring nods to indicate that late evening phone dates that would have to follow. I grabbed my belongings and left to look for my father’s silver Ford Taurus, most likely waiting outside the western exit of the school.

I jumped into the car, answering his unspoken questions about my day and rehearsal. He just smiled, nodded and murmured occasionally to show me he wasn’t completely annoyed by the irrelevance of my unending blabber. He seemed more subdued than usual. Must have been a tough day at the bakery, I figured. My father ran a successful business making well-known goods across New York City. Things got tough at times, but after 10 years of an entrepreneurial struggle, he had established a good business.

When I arrived home, I found my mom sitting on the floor of the main bedroom, with all her personal papers loose-leafed across the floor. She was frantically searching, ripping and throwing away things of no importance and collecting whatever seemed valuable. She looked up at me as my father joined her to look through the sea of endless papers. There was a brief silence as my dad, through his eyes, seemed to provoke my mother to speak.

“We’re moving to Canada.”

My initial reaction is not something I’d like on the record, but let’s just say a fit of epic proportions was thrown. Thrown all over the place. I was completely aghast – why on earth had my family decided to move, without any sort of consultation with me, to a frozen tundra with igloos and an ugly head-of-state matriarch?
But my and my young brother’s cries of disgust meant nothing in the face of my parents’ determination. The 11-year-long American citizenship process didn’t really pan out and we had been offered access to Canada on the basis of my mother’s medical qualifications. She hadn’t been able to practice in the United States, given that she committed the grave sin of becoming a doctor at one of the best schools in a developing country. To be offered a position in her field with that sort of pay, and really with no other choice, my parents packed up everything and we were on our way to Canada within two weeks.

And we were not impressed. Not only was life completely different in Vancouver, where we moved after a brief and yawn-inducing stint in Toronto, but none of the promises of the new promised land seemed to hold. My mother was told that she forgot to read the verbal small print on her immigration conditions: not only did she have to take about four years of Canadian medical school classes and residency, she had to take Grade 12 English.

Just to make sure.

The hit was immediate and spread quickly. My parents found themselves completely lost, financially and emotionally weakened. The most basic of things, to my 12-year-old mind, became beyond luxurious. We slept without mattresses for a year, with virtually no furniture in our house, while my parents looked for ways to regain financial security without tapping into their savings. My mother trained to become a midwife while my father worked security. Both of my parents come from upper-middle class strata and both are highly educated with years of unmatchable experience under their respective belts. But pride must be swallowed in order to keep the family fed.

Eventually both made their ways to calling centres, where they found themselves in the company of other medical doctors, former professors, accountants, civil engineers, economists; you name the career and it was there amongst a sea of headsets. They slowly moved up, got better positions, and started becoming more comfortable in our new lives. We all did. My brother and I had our American-ness stripped of us, and we were hesitant to accept a country which had torn us away from what we loved based on what we saw as deceit. The consciousness of our new immigrant identity forced us to wake up. Everything we did, said, wore, felt was spoken, worn, felt in the context of being essentially “legal aliens.”

It was hard for me to see myself as Canadian for many years, even when I took the oath of citizenship in 2004. I had my occasional bouts of patriotism, but they were always superficial and brief. I was angry; I was upset. My father’s business had been destroyed, my mother’s dream slaughtered, and I never got to do the tribute to Broadway: I never got to live my all-American dream. The only solace I ever found was in hockey – and even that was usually depressing, thank you very much, Vancouver Canucks.

But this sort of self-pity is nothing more than self-fulfilling. Pity gets you nothing, whether it’s from yourself or others. And I’m not asking for your pity either, as you read this brief account of my family’s migration story. No immigrant or migrant wants pity. And they don’t need it either. Instead of pitying, as members of a country built on the backs of immigrants we ought to rethink how we as a society engage with our immigrant population. And I don’t mean through the shoddy multiculturalist façade we’ve thrown up in an attempt to simultaneously appease and liberalize. It’s time for serious and practical immigration reform both at the structural and societal levels.

But I’ll save that discussion for another time. I have a hockey game to catch.

Sana Saeed normally writes every other Wednesday. Write her at