She came to Canada in the footsteps of revolutionaries: a 10-year-old girl on an 18-hour flight, imagining.
She imagined a country that would be different from the one she was leaving. She would be disappointed.
Growing up in Johannesburg, Zeenat Saloojee witnessed the “racial crime” that characterized South Africa under apartheid. It was a dehumanizing, segregationist system her mother and father fought against.
That fight ultimately resulted in her parents facing exile and subsequently seeking asylum in Canada in the late 1960s.
Saloojee stayed behind. She was raised by her extended family until her mother “did a cloak and dagger” and brought her to Canada, she recalls.
It was 1977.
“I just imagined that it would be completely different,” she says of her new country. “It really wasn’t.”
Her father worked as a teacher and ran a travel agency while trying to garner international opposition to apartheid. Her mother eventually found work at a department store makeup desk.
As the only person of colour at her new school in Burnaby, the faced a, “constant barrage of racism.”
She remembers always being aware of her hair and her body and how she was different. It was hard to accept who she was, Saloojee recalls.
The surface of what she faced was ugly enough. Beneath that surface there was something worse.
She recalls one particular morning. She’d just opened the door to go to school when she heard herself scream.
Someone had left the head of an animal on her family’s porch and written a racial slur in blood.
“I learned to adapt well,” she says.
A whole different story
Saloojee is one of 20 immigrants interviewed in Nice to Meet You, an art project spearheaded by photographer Luana Magno.
Originally from Brazil, Magno came to Canada three years ago with her husband. After the “concrete jungle” of Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver felt like a village, she laughs.
“My journey was very entitled. I chose to come,” she says.
Her project documents the way an immigrant’s journey is often full of surprises both large and small.
One man from Peru remembers not making it to any dinner parties on time.
“We were always late,” Mauricio Gamboa laughs. “Who’d have dinner at 6 p.m.?”
After six months in Canada, Carlos Morales says he’s still getting used to the frequency of static shocks.
Finding a place in a new country is quite a process, Magno notes.
“Even if you have done a lot of research, when you come here it’s a different story,” she says.
To help in that process, Magno dropped in on a series of workshops held by the Tri-Cities Local Immigration Partnership.
“There I could hear so many immigrant’s stories and so many powerful stories,” she says. “I just had the instant feeling that I needed to show this to the world . . . to share these stories and these faces.”
In her artist’s statement, Magno asks: “How could I not have noticed I had such inspiring people as neighbours?”
Immigration is often discussed in terms of rates and numbers. Magno felt the need to “humanize immigration.”
“They are your neighbours. I am your neighbour,” she says. “And you don’t know my story.”
Change of station
Babu Kadiyala was about six or seven years old when he first saw the Canadian flag on a lapel pin.
Born in an agricultural belt on southern India, Kadiyala remembers being intrigued by the look of the pin.
“That’d be a nice country to go to,” he remembers thinking.
Half a lifetime later, Kadiyala was living in Dubai with his wife and daughter, thinking about moving again.
Like a great many immigrants, Kadiyala was concerned about his child’s future. He made a good living in Dubai but his daughter, he explains, would face certain “cultural impositions.”
He and his wife ultimately chose Canada. He didn’t base the decision on the lapel pin, he notes. Still, he wonders if that memory was in the back of his mind when he made his decision.
The first six months were hard.
He remembers driving his daughter to school and his wife to her job and then looking for work anywhere he could.
“Those are the times when you feel defeated,” he acknowledges. “With all my qualifications, I ended up working at a gas station.”
Pumping gas may not have been the best application of a master’s degree in business administration but it turned out to be how he learned the culture, the people, how Canadians talk.
“That was my building block in this country; working at the lowest level of going and pumping gas.”
You sound like a Canadian
Ann Johannes was 21 years old when she realized she was different.
Her family had come to Canada from Kerala, India when she was 21 months old.
“I was just another immigrant’s kid,” she tells Magno during their interview.
But when she was 21 a friend told her she’d probably be hired for a job as a token minority.
“People here, no matter what, still see me as not from here,” she says. “Whenever I travel and people say, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘I’m Canadian.’ When people ask me here, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘I’m Indian.’”
She’s noticed a change in attitude when she meets someone for the first time after speaking to them on the phone.
“They don’t connect the brown face to who they’ve just spoken to on the phone,” she notes.
Salojee reports a variation on that theme. When she speaks with someone after exchanging emails, they too often seem surprised.
“Oh, you sound like a Canadian,” she remembers being told. “Well, I am Canadian.”
These days, Saloojee helps young newcomers to Canada find employment.
She asks them to share stories about things they overcame. Those stories, she says, are unbelievable.
“You have your own superpowers,” she tells them.
Part of the purpose of the art project is to showcase what immigrants bring to Canada.
“When they come and they choose Canada as their home, there is a lot that they have to offer,” Magno says. “Different . . . could be very good for you.”
While she didn’t plan for her piece to coincide with the pandemic, Magno says the project is particularly timely.
“The pandemic came to make us reflect on what community really means,” she says. “I think it made us also realize that we are all in this life together.”
At the end of her interviews, Magno asks her subjects about their favourite place.
For Saloojee, that place is the Coquitlam River.
She talks about being there in the rain. “All you can hear is the river,” she says.
It’s mesmerizing in those moments, she says.
“It makes me feel like home.”