A life, returned
As a child of immigrants, you sometimes feel that your accomplishments are not solely your own. Not in the sense that you didn't rightfully earn or deserve them, but that the ownership of them is shared – shared between you and the people who have ripped entire oceans in half and fought tirelessly for your stake in the promise of a country called Canada.
I have constantly recounted and retraced my parents' story of how they come to Canada, and in doing so, I have always felt an "amount owing" sign hover over my life. And while I haven't felt the typical ever-increasing sense of dread common to most debts, I have felt an acute sense of inadequacy. How could I ever begin to repay my parents when I could barely comprehend the terms of the original loan? The types of sacrifices made in the name of a better life for me are the kind that I will more than likely never have to make in my lifetime.
Their saga began in 1970s Ethiopia: revolution rapidly spread throughout the country like rains washing over cracked earth, the ground happily receiving this reprieve from the oppressive heat of the sun. But water can be just as destructive as it is life-giving. Revolutions take victims, and the country that they loved with every breath in their lungs, the country that they fought for, eventually turned on them. Forced to flee their own country, their home, their families, my parents became refugees. They walked for 11 days to Sudan, each step taking them closer to the country that would soon open its borders to them.
After spending three years trying to navigate immigration paperwork and learning new languages, they had to reconcile the fact that the life they perhaps once dreamed of would be no more. I don't know what it is they imagined for themselves as young adults, but I imagine that it would be akin to any early 20-something's aspirations in Canada. Go to school, get a good job, start a family, take care of your parents, travel the world, let yourself expand into the fullness of life. War, revolutions, refugee statuses, and being separated from your family are never in the plan. Nobody writes tragedy into their own dreams.
Toronto, Ontario, 1989. I am born. Every hope for themselves became hopes for me. Their hard work was a means to a successful end for me. The 12-hour shifts, and working two jobs each, were to afford me the things that were stolen from them. Education, security, freedom – all in a country that promised stability in a way that their beloved back home couldn't when they needed it the most. I can't know what that would feel like, to be simultaneously immensely grateful for your new home that welcomed you and promised to keep you safe, while deeply longing for your first home, the one that raised you and you never imagined leaving (not like this, anyway) — the one that broke your heart.
When I think of my life, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude to the country that took my parents in and allowed them to build new dreams; and to my parents, who used what remained of their hopes from before to lay down a foundation that I could build my own life on.
How do you pay that back? It would be inadequate to say that everything I do is for them. Everything I do isn't for them; they taught me to hold things for my own joy and wonderment, and that my voice and my life are my own. I echo the beautiful sacrifices they made for me by affirming that everything I do is them. My parents taught me that the goal should never be perfection, but to be better than you were yesterday. When I take pride in being a black woman, I am my mom. When I aim to be gentler with people and their shortcomings (including me and my own), I channel her. When I spend time researching and learning my history, refining the craft of my own writing, I become my dad, the world's greatest unofficial philosopher.
I won't ever be able to repay them for the magnificent life they have given to me. But perhaps repayment isn't the right goal; it signifies an eventual end, a closing of the account. I don't want there to be an end to this. I hope they know that every day I strive to amplify the magnitude of their lives through my own. That is how I repay them. It is the most beautiful debt I have ever incurred.
Gloria Alamrew is a writer based in Edmonton.