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Origin Stories: Becoming an ordinary family in extraordinary times

Vicky Mochama, Metro's national columnist, shares her story of arrival in Canada.

Vicky Mochama and her mother Agnes visit the apartment where the family lived together after moving to Canada from Kenya.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Vicky Mochama and her mother Agnes visit the apartment where the family lived together after moving to Canada from Kenya.

I was five years old when I touched down at Toronto’s Pearson airport in November 1994. The plan: Experience Canada for a bit, then go back to Kenya.

We’ve been here for 23 years.

Our story is extraordinary in its ordinariness. In the apartment buildings where we spent our early years, there were hundreds more families exactly like us, before and after our tenure.

The promise of education and prosperity kept my family here. For others the choices weren’t as ambitious; home was less a place to return to and more of a hope to find.

Our extended stay started when my dad was awarded a scholarship to study in Canada for the second time. He’d come once before, alone, to the University of Manitoba. But on this journey, my mom accompanied him and then my three siblings and I followed one year later.

Not that I knew any of that at the time. Kids are an oblivious bunch. All I knew was it was very cold, but in exchange, I got a fabulous bright pink jacket. So, how bad could it be?

Mother and daughter reunited at the airport in 1994 after a year apart.

Contributed

Mother and daughter reunited at the airport in 1994 after a year apart.

Winter was hard, but keeping food on the table was harder. The scholarship provided just enough to cover rent. 

“There was no support for families,” says my dad. “You were on your own.”

Nearly 90 per cent of the scholarship money went to a two-bedroom apartment in 30 Charles St., a concrete skyscraper just south of Bloor Street in downtown Toronto. Across the street stands 35 Charles, its doppelganger building where we made yet more friends and found family.

Inside these buildings, the diversity of the academy was on display as students from around the world packed into the towers. Coming home from school, the hallways always smelled of faraway homes.

Together, neighbours shared tips on how to get a library card and where to buy cheap fruits and vegetables. The building pulsed with the energy of students and their families as they tried to make functioning lives in Toronto. In our building’s Free Room, we dug out the appliances and furniture from the homes of now-departed tenants to make our new home.

The change in our physical reality also came with big changes to our family reality.

My mother’s late nights and early mornings left my dad — a mathematician of towering intellect — as the cook and hairdresser of three girls. It is not his strongest domestic skill.

My sister was a regular torment. My father, the PhD student, would frequently tie her hair tightly and warn her not to loosen it. She’d return from school sans hair tie with a head full of playground sand.

The money for food, television, and six winter jackets came from my mother. In Kenya, her job as a senior education administrator included her own driver.

In Canada, she took the subway to job after job — homecare, book sales, worm-picking — where the only perk was taking home a paycheque. (Except for book sales, which occasionally netted a free novel or two for the shy, bookish, frequent-crier in her life a.k.a. me.)

She found jobs that were physically taxing and unthanking. She sought out the government programs that allowed us to thrive: Friends pointed her to a subsidized summer camp at the 519 Community Centre in Toronto’s Gay Village. She reached to a community that fed us, located opportunities that entertained us and did the work that sustained us.

While my dad’s education was the reason we were in Canada, it was my mother’s resourcefulness that allowed us to survive.

Our collective existence — the solid core of my world, my family — is due to my mom’s fortitude. I was a child. To quote Robert Hayden, “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

That I know men can be pushed past their traditions and masculinity is because of my dad.

Those years seem really far away now. We’ve settled in. Now, when I return to Canada from travelling, it’s like flopping onto a well-worn couch at home.

I hope, however, to never forget that my ease was put together by grit and adversity and all the things that make good life worthwhile. It was in those extraordinary days that we became an ordinary family — loving, selfless and united.

How I feel close to home? 

I keep Kenya in my heart by keeping it on my feet. Every summer, I put on a new pair of beaded sandals that someone transports from Kenya. I transport myself around the city I’m in now with shoes from where my past lies.

Vicky Mochama is Metro’s national columnist. She appears every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

About this series:

This summer we are telling tales of our multicultural nation through your stories of arrival. Share yours for a chance to be included in the series with #MetroOrigins or email sjbattersby@metronews.ca

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