I spent my last two weeks in Toronto, completing some training for my new position at Varicent. I had a swell time – the training was great, and I have plenty of friends in Toronto that I grew up with, and I managed to see a good many of them during my two weeks in the city. I had Korean food (twice!), Japanese food, Chinese food, and Indian food… plus my former college roommate Chris and I hung out for an evening at Sneaky Dee’s, one of my favorite haunts. But no, I did not have any Tim Hortons.
Toronto is, in fact, cold during the winter – when I arrived in the city on January 10th it was about 3 degrees Fahrenheit (and when I left the city this past Saturday, it was even colder than that). Interestingly enough, however, if you live downtown, there are days when you will not need to venture outside of buildings at all during the day. I stayed at a hotel that connected to the North York Centre subway station, while my workplace connected (in a roundabout way) to the York Mills subway station; to get to work from the hotel I could travel the entire route without stepping outside at all. Much of Toronto is this way – in the downtown core there are miles and miles of indoor shopping plazas that link together many of the major buildings within the city, and other such plazas but subway stops away.
On my way back to Charleston, during the trip from my hotel in North York to Toronto’s Pearson Airport, I got to talking with my cab driver. He seemed a very chipper fellow, especially considering it was very early in the morning (I have this thing about getting to airports waaaaay in advance of my flights… I’m risk averse when it comes to getting stuck in airports). I asked him where he was from and what had brought him to Canada, and he had an interesting story to tell.
He turned out to be Ethiopian; his mother hailed from one tribe in Ethiopia and his father from another. Because of some unfortunate politics involving these two tribes this fellow ended up fleeing his country and moving to the United States (Virginia) with the rest of his family.
Unfortunately, due to visa restrictions placed upon his family, this fellow was unable to stay in the United States and was forced to leave his family behind (basically, when his other family members arrived in Virginia, they used up their family’s ‘quota’). As a last resort he came to Canada, about which he knew very little; he took a one-way bus trip to Buffalo in New York and met with a church group kindly enough to take him in and help him with crossing the border. When he finally did arrive in Toronto he had $300 in his pocket and nowhere to stay; fortunately some members of the same church group living in Toronto took him in and helped him get settled.
Fast forward a few years – this fellow now has a wife and two kids and is the happiest cab driver I’ve met. He talks about how wonderful Canada is, how lucky he is to be here, and how he never knew what freedom meant until he came here, to a place where people can be who they are and be accepted for it. He also talked about how people often come into his cab grouchy and complaining about work – unfair deadlines and the like – saying, “well, you’re a cab driver; you wouldn’t know what real stress is”. On the contrary, I’m sure many of the people complaining in this fellow’s cab don’t know what real stress is – being unwelcome in your own homeland simply because of your ancestry, and having to flee to a foreign land with $300 in cash in your pocket and an unknown future.
It certainly put things into perspective. We are very fortunate to live in countries like the United States and Canada, where we’re generally free to be who we are without repercussion (admittedly not always, but we’re working on it). I personally find that I am not often thankful enough for the amazing things that I have been given; in many ways I am who I am and have succeeded in building a career and raising a family simply because I was born in a free country. It is easy to compare your own life to those of celebrities or to those who have struck it extremely rich in one way or another and to forget that just across the pond there are people who live every day hungry and fearful for their lives and for the lives of their families.
I feel that it is our duty to take what we’ve been given and make the most of it, and to do what we can to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. And when foreigners arrive on our shores seeking asylum, we should remember that, for the most part, they’re not here to live off welfare or to somehow make the lives of those already established here unpleasant or more difficult… they’re here to start their lives anew, as free men and women, to work very hard for their livings, and to raise their families in peace… just like our own ancestors hoped to do when they arrived on the shores of North America generations ago.