Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
Back in 1977, the Philippines had a population of 43.65 million people, while India had 651.9 million, and China had 943.5 million. In contrast, Canada had 23.7 million and Germany had 78.16 million people living within their borders. Today, as back then, there are too many people living in densely populated areas in the Global South, whereas countries like Canada are thinly populated.
Can moving people from the Philippines, India and China (and elsewhere in the Global South) to Germany, the USA and Canada and other less populated countries provide a solution to poverty, unemployment or suffering in the developing world? Can people adapt and be happy in totally different and strange places? These were questions that kept ‘bugging’ my sixth grade mind in 1977. My great, great grandparents, I was told, had also migrated to the Philippines using land bridges and boats. My father’s great grandparents had come from Indonesia and my mother’s great grandfather had come from mainland China in search of a better life. I therefore also wondered whether I had a future in Iloilo City in the Philippines or if I would also need to become a migrant in order to have a better future.
First stop: Pacific islands
A couple of years after graduating from university, I went to live in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands (a US commonwealth territory in the western Pacific Ocean). The weather was just like the Philippines but the island was less densely populated. There were more social services, employment opportunities, and the environment was cleaner. For a while, I was happy with the laid-back island life; I learned the Chamorro and Carolinian languages and culture, but stayed away from chewing betel nut.
I worked full-time and also volunteered with organisations helping foreign workers and improving labour laws of the Commonwealth. But somehow after three years of living in ‘paradise’, a restlessness settled upon me. I wanted to pursue higher education, and at that time Saipan only had community colleges (as online / distance education was not yet available). So I decided to move back to the Philippines, pursue higher education, and be with my family.
I completed my Master’s degree while I was working with an EU-funded agricultural project on small islands in the Philippines. I travelled within the country for work and more often than not I got bumped off flights due to overbookings. On one occasion, while passing time at a hotel, I met a Canadian visa officer who invited me to attend his session on how to immigrate to Canada. He promised that the seminar would be finished two hours before I needed to be at the airport.
I attended the seminar and it provided a lot of information on the opportunities for migrants in Canada such as job placements for my profession, steps needed to obtain a Canadian designation as an accounting professional, and a whole lot of interesting information on what to expect in a country so different from the Philippines. After thorough research and careful consideration, I decided to move. I therefore proceeded to complete all the necessary documentation and scheduled a trip to the embassy in Manila. After handing in all the paperwork at 8:30 am, I was told to wait. After three hours, I was surprised to hear that my visa application had been ‘approved in principle’ pending results of my medical examination. Canada wanted me – and I could feel it!
Second stop: Canada
I conditioned my mind to think that starting over in a new country would not be easy and I needed to plan, apply myself, and be ready to face difficulties and roadblocks. Armed with my resolve to succeed, and two heavy suitcases, I landed in Winnipeg on a cold afternoon in October. I was alone and did not know anyone in my newly adopted city. To my surprise, I saw a diverse group of people were holding a big banner saying ‘Welcome to Winnipeg, Imelda’. They were volunteers who helped me find temporary accommodation, introduced me to the public transport system, and all the newcomer agencies / services that I would use as a new resident of ‘Winterpeg’.
Five days after landing, I got my first job as an accountant at a research facility in the University of Manitoba and I also experienced my very first winter snowstorm. Inspired by my experience and in search of a better life, a year later, one of my siblings joined me. A couple of years later under Canada’s family reunification programme, I sponsored my parents and other siblings to come to Canada. Of the 13 provinces and territories, I have lived and worked in five. Moreover, Canada has opened up the world for me: it allowed me to carry out humanitarian work via Canadian organisations in many countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. However, I always come back to the welcoming arms of my maple leaf home.
Starting over was not easy, adjusting to a new country was difficult and painful but it gave me a chance to build a life and make it even better and meaningful than before. It did not happen easily, but looking back the journey itself has been quite wonderful.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Flickr / W.Stadler