This is Us: The Newcomer Experience (K.H.D)

The series will feature interviews conducted and written by Kristen Allen about newcomers arriving and living in Canada.

About The Interview

This series features the responses to questions about arriving, adjusting and living in Canada. There is also a portion where participants share what they would like you to know. Except where edited for clarity, all responses are in the interviewee’s own words.

In this interview, K.H.D. speaks about her experiences moving to Canada at 13 years old, and her advice to other newcomer youth in similar situations. 

What was it like when you first arrived?

I came to Canada at 13 years old around September to start my first year of high school. The weather was getting colder, and it felt like a huge transition to move countries at that age. I was going to a new school, and there was a lot to adjust to and learn about. I was starting high school, and it felt like there were so many changes happening in my life. 

I remember feeling like I had to hurry to get adjusted to this new way of living, especially since my mother sold everything we had in Guyana to be able to afford plane tickets and make enough money to move here. I felt like my mom sacrificed so much to bring us here for these better opportunities. She sacrificed so much that I felt like I shouldn’t complain or make a big deal about all these new adjustments. It was a lot of pressure for a 13-going-on-14 year old girl to learn to adjust and try and be as successful as possible. I was the eldest daughter, and the last thing I wanted to do was add to my mothers plate. So I tried my best to set an example for my siblings, and be the best I could be. 

What are some experiences that you remember that made you feel welcome like where have you found community (online activities, school, etc.)?

I felt most welcome within my family unit, we moved to Canada along with most of my extended family – and my mother is one of eight siblings. We were the sixth in her family to move to Canada, so I had my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents to turn to for support. 

Family is where I really felt a sense of belonging, because reuniting with my family meant that I could finally connect with and be a part of this family we had only ever heard about through family visits or letters or postcards and phone calls. My family taught me all the ins and outs, and shared where to shop, where was safe to go or not to go. They kind of gave me the lowdown – so to speak. 

Now I didn't have any cousins that were my age because again, I was the eldest. So, I didn’t have anyone in my family that was a teenager to talk to me about teenager stuff. So I kind of picked up bits and pieces from adult conversations and tried to see if I could make that fit into my life. I didn’t really find a true sense of community in school at the time. It took me a few years to really build that social network. So, in the beginning it was the family I spent time with. 

When I first moved to Canada, I lived with my aunt in Whitby and the high school I went to was in Ajax. It was a fairly new high school, so I sat at the table in the cafeteria with a group of other newcomers at lunchtime. My group comprised of myself, some friends from Malaysia, the Phillipines, and the U.K.. We had quite a bit in common because the school system we were familiar with was the British model and we completed the same form (here it would be considered grade). I found community there. 

What advice would you give a newcomer youth in a similar situation like to when you first came?

I would share that it is more than okay to still hold on to your traditions, culture, and beliefs. Because, especially as a young person, there is a pressure to fit in so that you can make friends. That pressure you feel to assimilate and act a certain way, dress a certain way, and behave a certain way so that people here will like you can feel strong at times. But you will gain a lot of strength in trusting your own identity and upbringing. Let your lunch look different than the folks around you, enjoy your “funny” way of talking, correct people when they pronounce your name wrong. It is part of your identity, it is who you are, and you shouldn’t have to change that to fit into Canadian society.

I would also warn that in your life, you may encounter some form of discrimination, microaggression or structural racism. You don’t have to accept this as part of the norm. Growing up, it felt normal to hear about places like Canada and America. As if those places were magical lands where life is so much better, and where people are so much happier. With that thought, it is natural to come and put the Canadian lifestyle on a pedestal. I remember feeling like this country is the land of opportunity, therefore, I have to be grateful that I am here. But when encountering racism, that gratitude is not a debt owed. You don’t have to accept unwelcoming behaviour, and if you do encounter unequal treatment, make sure to talk to someone you trust and will support you through that experience. 

I would also suggest that you take it upon yourself to learn about Indigenous communities and their histories here. I didn’t learn about their history as a newcomer youth in high school, but learning about the Indigenous communities here in Canada and their histories can really broaden your perspective. 

Is there anything else that you'd like to share?

I remember the narrative that people would talk down or look down on the experiences of being an immigrant. Terms like “fresh off the boat” weren’t exactly endearing. So, you try to downplay when you first came to Canada, or what that experience is like. But at the same time, that can be damaging – because it means that you’re not really giving yourself an opportunity to get the support you need and express yourself. 

It seems like there are a lot more programs and services for newcomers, BIPOC youth, and first generation students now than when I was in school. I would advise that you make full use of these services and supports as part of your transition to life in Canada. It is a way to gain an advantage and create support systems for yourself. Don’t underestimate the value in community.