• Starting over: Different paths lead immigrants to Canada from India, Australia

    By Lena-Maria Reers

    TORONTO – Life isn’t easy for most of us. But if you’re an immigrant, it’s even more complicated. You’re in an unfamiliar country with a different culture and often a strange language. You’re alone, with family and friends thousands of miles away. And you need to find housing and employment – often while fighting a running battle with immigration authorities.

    Despite these daunting obstacles, some 125,000 newcomers arrive each year in Ontario, Canada. They’re coming to stay – if they can.

    One of them is Gayatri Arora, 25, who was born in Bareilly, a city of 700,000 in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state. She immigrated to Canada on Jan. 3, 2007, with two suitcases and a week’s booking at the Canadiana Backpackers Inn in downtown Toronto. Within that week, the chemical engineer found a place to live. Finding a suitable job would be more problematic.

    While Gayatri knew she was headed for Toronto, other immigrants arrive in Canada’s largest city – which has the second-highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the world – by a more circuitous route. Sarah Jane Coe, 28, is one of them. Originally from Hobart on the Australian island of Tasmania, she first came to Canada in November 2005 on a work-and-travel visa and planned to stay for only a year. But on May 7, 2006, after an extended stay in the Vancouver area and a briefer one in Montreal, Sarah Jane entered Toronto by long-distance bus and suddenly had the feeling: “Wow, this is where I’m meant to be.

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     What makes people leave home for a far-off country? And what makes them persevere in the face of hassles and hardships? Obviously, there is no single answer because every immigrant has his or her own story. But there are some typical patterns.

    Gayatri left her country at the age of 15 when her father sent her to college in Houston, Texas. That was the first time she’d lived far away from family and friends. But in college, the young Indian woman quickly made new friends and, as time passed, Gayatri got really used to life in the United States. “When I first came to the U.S. the plan was to go back to India,” Gayatri says. But four years and a college degree in chemical engineering later, she extended her student visa.

    “I didn’t suddenly change my mind” about going back, she says. “It was rather a gradual thing.” After finishing her college degree in Houston, Gayatri explored job opportunities at home in India and realized that it would be much better to stay in the U.S. and go to grad school as well. By the time she received her master’s degree, she liked what she was doing so much that she decided to spend another few years pursuing a Ph.D. at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

    Sarah Jane, meanwhile, had a nicely established life in Australia. She had been working for McDonald’s in her home city for about ten years, most of them as a manager of two restaurants. She was married and about to build a house with her husband of eight years. But then, “my husband suddenly decided he didn’t want to be married anymore,” the 28-year old woman says. “He didn’t know what he wanted out of life, so we separated.”

    The disappointment was huge. Her carefully constructed life was shattered in a moment, and no future in Tasmania was imaginable. Sarah Jane simply couldn’t bear all the memories of her previous life in her native city. She hit rock bottom.

    In that situation, her best friend – herself a Canadian – encouraged Sarah Jane to get a visa for Canada and try something new. “She told me that life is short and that I needed to start living for myself,” Sarah Jane says. So she made a New Year’s resolution in 2005 to go to Vancouver, British Columbia, on a one-year work-and-travel visa.

    Eleven months later, at Whistler, a resort town just northeast of Vancouver, Sarah Jane got a job straightaway because of her previous work experience in Australia. For six months, she was a supervisor at a lounge on Mount Seymour. When her contract ended in April 2006, Sarah Jane says, she flew east to spend the remaining six months of her visa in Montreal, Quebec. “But I got there and I don’t speak French. I found people very rude, hard to get along with and not very helpful. So after only one week I left for Toronto.”

    Gayatri and Sarah Jane – two very different stories of immigration, each of them very personal, but with some common elements typical of many such stories: “The hope for a better life elsewhere is probably the main motivation for people to migrate,” says Dr. Donna Gabaccia, a University of Minnesota history professor and an expert on migration. That involves personal issues and education as well as better economic opportunities in some foreign labor markets, Gabaccia says.

    After finishing her Ph.D., Gayatri got a job at a start-up company in Seattle, Washington.


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    For a year and a half, she helped develop fuel cells for the generation of electricity from biomass, all the while asking her employer to sponsor her for a green card. “It’s fair to say that I was planning to stay in America [the United States],” she says. It never happened.

    U.S. law requires that a potential immigrant applying for a green card through employment must find a job first with an employer who will sponsor him or her. That’s the only way a skilled worker can prove his ability to adapt to U.S. society as a permanent resident.

    The company Gayatri was working for was very small and had only a handful of projects. There was little revenue stability, which led to a hire-and-fire culture. “And if they know that they can do whatever they want with you and you can’t leave, then you start working long hours,” Gayatri says.

     

    “You start not getting the projects you want and though they can’t pay you less than an American, you can be kept at the low end of pay scale. You know that a lot of things [that happen to you] are not completely fair, small things every day that bother you.”

    The company never did get around to sponsoring her for a green card, and eventually Gayatri applied for a skilled worker visa in Canada, a country known for its more liberal immigration policies. “They have different criteria, like your age and your education, your ability to speak English and French, whether you have relatives in the country or not, things that affect how well you would adapt. But if you pass all that you can just sponsor yourself,” Gayatri says.

    When she got her confirmation of residency in Canada, Gayatri wasted no time in leaving the U.S., turning her back on a life she’d spent almost 10 years building she immigrated to Toronto as a skilled worker uncertain of whether she’d find a job in her field, uncertain of whether she’d like the culture and uncertain about her next steps.

    However, the number of people worldwide who are willing to face the hardship and uncertainty of migrating to foreign countries has increased steadily over the past 35 years. “At the moment, 6 to 7 percent of the world’s population is living in a country different from their birthplace,” Gabaccia says. The interconnectedness of people and places through the global spread of the Internet contributes to that tendency, she says, with Web technologies making it easier and more affordable for migrants to communicate regularly with relatives and friends at home. Internet research also makes it possible for potential emigrants to learn in advance about possible destinations.

    Gayatri, for example, joined some online groups about six months before she left for Toronto and asked for advice on how to establish herself in Canada successfully. However, “In almost every group online there are a lot of very bitter people who came to Canada as skilled workers and can’t find a job. These people tell you: Don’t come, because it’s going to ruin your life.” Gayatri moved to Toronto anyway, but it was a wrenching decision.

    Sarah Jane agrees that immigration is a tough choice. “Moving away from your friends and family is probably the hardest thing you’ll ever choose to do, and if it’s not for a very valid reason or something you are really passionate about, then why are you choosing to do it?”

    Although the two women have certain shared experiences, there are two important differences. Sarah Jane has a job and Gayatri does not; Gayatri has permanent resident status in Canada and Sarah Jane does not.

    “Once I arrived in Toronto,” Sarah Jane says, “I looked for jobs but didn’t have any luck. It was really, really difficult. Finally, I went to McDonald’s and told them: This is what I’ve done in Australia, this is what I’ve been doing in the last six months. I’m here for another five months. Do you have anything for me?” She got the opportunity to start as the restaurant manager for a problem franchise and quickly proved herself a valuable employee for McDonald’s Canada.

    Next, Sarah Jane developed and implemented an employee training program. Not wanting to lose her talent, McDonald’s spent more than $5,000 (Canadian) to extend her visa and legally created a new position for her as training manager for McDonald’s Canada.

    Despite this success, Sarah Jane isn’t settled yet. She holds only a sponsorship visa, which means that she can work only for McDonald’s and only in Toronto. “If I don’t work for them, I have to leave [the country] straightaway,” she says. “I can’t do anything permanent, or make any plans because I don’t know what’s actually going to happen. Initially, that’s really fun. It’s like: ‘Oh, what’s going to happen next?’ But when a little time has gone by, you want to feel settled.”

    Especially having had an entire life taken from her once already, Sarah Jane now wants to make sure that she has an alternative if things don’t work out in Canada. She keeps her official life in Australia going, although she hopes to stay in Toronto and apply for permanent resident status.

    And as Gayatri continues searching for a suitable job, she too is keeping her options open. “If I can’t find a decent job, I’m not going to [waste] the rest of my life” in Canada, the 25-year old says. “I would go back to India, because there is just no compelling reason for me anymore to go back to the U.S. I want to vote, I want to be settled somewhere, I want to belong.”

    As both Sarah Jane and Gayatri have discovered, life as an immigrant may be filled with the hope of a better future, but it’s also filled with the frustration of the present. Sometimes home looks pretty good.


    Lena-Maria Reers, an exchange student from the University of Trier, Germany, received the Certificate in International Journalism from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.