What's your story

How a strange school project helped me turn a new leaf in Canada

Born to Greek and French-Lebanese parents, Stella Leventoyannis Harvey came to Canada with her family as a kid. English was just one of things she would learn in her new home.
Stella Harvey as a child in Egypt and today, in Calgary. (Stella Harvey)

Born in Egypt to Greek and French-Lebanese parents, Stella Leventoyannis Harvey came to Canada with her family as a kid. Learning English was just one of things she would learn in her new home.

Throughout 2017, we're asking Canadians, "What's your story?" Harvey, of Calgary, shares hers.


I didn't speak English when we moved to Canada.

We immigrated from Cairo, Egypt, where I was born. My father is Greek, my mother was French and Lebanese.

When I was growing up, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar nationalized European and other foreign businesses and made Arabic the language of instruction even in private schools. I was in a private Greek school and my parents worried that I would only eventually be able to speak Arabic.

Harvey and her siblings in their new home in Calgary. (Stella Harvey)

With all this turmoil and wanting the best for their children, my parents applied to immigrate to a number of different countries. Canada accepted us and so we came.

My family settled in Calgary, where my parents thought of the environment as very harsh — "what is with all those trees and mountains" my mother used to say — and I started school. I remember coming home and spelling out words I'd learned in class. APPLE. CAT. DOG. MOTHER. FATHER. I giggled at the strangeness of the sounds in my mouth. My mother smiled with pride.

I learned how generosity, kindness and attention could make a little unsure girl from a far away land feel special.- Stella Harvey

A few years later, in grade 3, I was asked by a teacher to complete an assignment for class. I had to collect fall leaves and catalogue them by name. This project stumped me and baffled my parents. "They want you to pick up dry, dead things from the ground? And do what with them?"

Our neighbour, Mrs. O'Dell, was expecting her first child. My parents asked her to help me. And she agreed.

We went foraging for leaves under, what seemed to me at the time, every tree in our neighbourhood. She got down on her hands and knees, her big belly in front of her. I remember thinking how I was going to get in trouble for getting my red skirt dirty, my socks and shoes coated in dust. But she was so cheerful, witty and engaged, I stopped worrying and sat down in the dirt beside her.

Christmas in Canada. (Stella Harvey)

She asked me which leaves I was attracted to. Why I picked up this one rather than another one. She spoke animatedly about everything we found. She bought me a book to display my finds. And we worked on identifying them through encyclopaedias and other books she had.

It felt like it was our project.

In the end, I learned a lot about trees and leaves and life.

Mostly I learned how generosity, kindness and attention could make a little unsure girl from a far away land feel special. I think that kindness was what struck me — and still does — about being Canadian.

What's your story? What defines Canada for you? Is there a time that you were proud to be Canadian, or perhaps a time you felt disappointed? Is there a place, person, or event in your life that sums up what being Canadian is to you? Tell us at cbc.ca/ whatsyourstory.

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