Immigrants Going Full Circle: Friends Returning to the Old Home

October 08, 2013

By Lea Z. Singh |

Czechoslovak postage stamp with Prague castle.
A long time ago under Communism, one of my parents' friends scored the equivalent of winning the Lotto Max: she met a Belgian man and moved to Belgium to become his bride, her one-way ticket to prosperity.

Recently, we learned that this friend's Belgian-raised daughter will be moving from her home in Belgium to live with her new Czech husband in the Czech Republic.

For us this turn of events is bittersweet, even as it perfectly symbolizes the way that tides have turned over the last twenty-odd years since the fall of Communism.

Back when my parents escaped Czechoslovakia for a better life, they were fleeing a world that was coloured in different shades of grey. Looking back at life under Communism, it seems almost unbelievable, as if it were a bad movie and not reality. Now I am thankful that I got to experience some of it before we left, so I could have concrete memories of that strange existence and know for a fact that up until the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Europe was truly divided into darkness and light.

It was a brave decision by my parents to leave behind everything and everyone, knowing that a return was impossible without being arrested. I am still awed that they made that decision.

They had spent their entire lives locked inside the borders of Communist Czechoslovakia; even Vienna, a mere two-hour drive from where they lived in Brno, had been a mythical fantasy they had never been allowed to see. When their permits were granted for the first-ever trip outside, to the pseudo-Communist Yugoslavia, they bolted for the Austrian border and irrevocably jumped ship. It was a clean break with their entire known world; the price paid for freedom and opportunity for a better life.

The mysterious country of Canada accepted our application for asylum as political refugees, and we were assigned to be settled in Edmonton. I remember our arrival at the airport, where we disembarked the plane in the depth of winter. Never having seen a northern city before, we had no idea what to expect; thankfully, we were given donated coats, hats, scarves, mittens and boots to wear. Then, like moonwalkers we stepped out into the -30 degree day.

It was a surreal experience walking down the utterly foreign-looking streets for the first time. We stared at the low shoebox-like buildings, freezing wind gusting into our faces, everything covered in white. We felt as if we were at the North Pole.

Life as new immigrants proved to be, in the words of Langston Hughes, no crystal stair for my parents. They did whatever they could to make ends meet, taking on jobs that were well beneath their Czech work experiences and qualifications. Back in Czechoslovakia people probably imagined my parents as having "made it", but the reality was that we were poor for a long time before my parents managed to build up their small nest.

Now after many years, my parents are finally able to enjoy their lives in relative comfort. Their hard work has paid off.  

Or has it?

What my parents couldn't have known in 1985 was that less than five years after their dash for freedom, the Berlin Wall would crumble and Communism in Czechoslovakia would be swept away by the Velvet Revolution.

Once the floodgates were opened, people came pouring out and Western goods came pouring in. In 2004 the Czech Republic became a member of the European Union, and it is now considered “one of the most stable and prosperous of the post-Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe”.

When we visit the Czech Republic these days, we witness that prosperity everywhere. Family members and friends enjoy material luxuries that we once only dreamed of, and many even surpass our own standards of living. They shop at IKEA just like we do, they watch the same TV shows, and they casually hop all over Europe on their frequent vacations.

Now, those of us who left the mother country and survived through decades of hardship in foreign lands are left with the question: was immigration really worth it?

For my parents, the answer is complicated. Aside from their years of hard work, they will always have other losses that they cannot recover; mainly, their permanent separation from the families and friends they left behind, and their lingering sense of being different here in Canada. Their accents, their humour, their tastes and even interests are still different from those mainstream "Canadians" among whom we live.

Even I feel somewhat culturally detached, though I see this as a positive - it has allowed me to weave my own path through life.

But there is no doubt for me that my parents made the right decision. It was a wild and dangerous gamble, but they could not have made any other decision at the time: they chose freedom over submission, opportunity over wasted lives.

Immigration may not have radically benefited us in tangible ways, but it was the ultimate life adventure, and it provided me with my greatest life lessons. As a family we went through so much, and experienced such a diversity of life conditions, that we could each have lived two whole lives. And if experience brings wisdom, then we have hopefully become more wise about the important things in life.

Many of our old countrymen in the Czech Republic are now dizzy with delight at the materialist fruits of freedom; they are living the capitalist dream and chasing the latest and greatest gadget, car and other indulgence, comfort or entertainment.

We watch their world as outsiders; we don't fit into that scene either. My parents laid everything on the line for our freedom, and for me growing up, that was the lesson that stuck the most: there are far more important things in life than material pleasures, there are real values worth fighting for, worth giving everything for, such as freedom, truth, and goodness. I want my life to be focused on striving towards those ideals, rather than sinking into the pursuit of fleeting material pleasures.

Mami, Tati, thank you for your courage - you could not have foretold the future, but you are still my heroes.

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Raymond at stockvault

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