Nova Scotia

'Thank you Sydney!' Former refugee fondly remembers warm welcome

Thomas Lukaszuk came to Sydney as a child and still remembers the welcome his family received. Thirty-five years later, he is telling the community how much that meant.

A former deputy premier of Alberta is extending a belated thanks to the people of Sydney, N.S.

Brothers Adam and Thomas Lukaszuk enjoy the sunshine in the spring of 1983 in Sydney, N.S. (Submitted by Thomas Lukaszuk)

In December 1982, Thomas Lukaszuk and his family arrived Nova Scotia as Polish refugees, bewildered, exhausted and unable to speak a word of English.

Now, he wants to express his appreciation for the welcome they received in Sydney.

"We certainly didn't expect that awaiting us at the Sydney airport would be an alderman, accordion player and a large group of residents with flowers, candy and a hand-drawn sign (which we could not decipher, as it was written in English)," he wrote in a letter to the local paper.

'We felt welcome'

"It didn't matter what the sign said. We knew that they were glad to see us and we felt welcome."

Lukaszuk told CBC News that sense of welcome continued as the family settled in. He says people helped the family learn English, and offered them drives to the grocery store.

Lukaszuk recalls a particularly emotional day when a group of people presented his mother with a sewing machine. She had been a fashion designer and seamstress in Poland.

"My mother immediately started sewing wedding gowns, which became quite popular in Sydney and then in Alberta," he said. "My mother became the breadwinner and did quite well."

That enabled the family to buy bicycles and eventually a family car. They moved to Alberta about a year later.

Political career

Lukaszuk became a politician and served as deputy premier under Alison Redford. He says without the generosity of the people of Sydney, his life might have turned out very differently.

Alberta deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk is sworn in back in May 2012. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

"I firmly believe that without the help of (teacher) Mr. Blake at Memorial Junior High who helped me along and the people who helped us financially, I would probably not be able to finish university, pursue a political career, and have the confidence and the sense of belonging that I can actually be a Canadian," he said.

"That was instilled in me in the very early days."

Immigration today

Lukaszuk says he wrote the letter this week, in part, as a commentary on immigration policy.

"I hope that your spirit of embrace persists and serves as an example to the rest of Canada and the world at a time when welcoming immigrants and refugees is a subject of great debate," he writes.

"I wish that all immigrants, no matter where fortunes may take them, could experience your spirit of community."