Heading for Home By Daniela Cohen

Heading for Home

By Daniela Cohen

Published on Mon, Dec 01 2008 by Daniela Cohen

In 1994, I waved goodbye through the Johannesburg airport glass. My cousins and my grandfather were standing behind it. I kept turning back to get one last look at them before we boarded the plane. I just didn’t want to go. The airline staff called our names to board. We ran down the corridor, an assortment of bags hanging off our arms, my sister and I apologizing numerous times as we accidentally hit other passengers with our huge togbags while walking down the aisle of the plane. We flew for over 24 hours – Johannesburg to Rome to San Diego to Seattle, where we boarded a bus. Having lived the first sixteen years of my life in South Africa, stepping off the bus two hours later in Vancouver, the first thing I noticed were the trees. Instead of the beautiful bushes of Johannesburg, there were neat rows of fir trees, flowers carefully planted in beds in the centre of the street. I didn’t see huge houses enclosed in high fences, with barbed wire and “Beware of the dog” signs; there were only rows of modest houses with small patches of grass and no fences in sight. The summer sun didn’t go down at 7pm; it stayed light until10pm, confusing me as to what time it really was. My mom had tried to avoid driving at night in Johannesburg, but here I could go running by myself until late in the evening. Normally, I would have been at school, surrounded by friends. Here, it was summer holidays, and I didn’t know anyone my own age. Instead, I spent my days writing long letters to everyone I’d left behind. I wondered what we were doing here, what I was doing here. I wanted desperately to go home.

For a long time, I deeply resented my mother’s decision to immigrate. She hadn’t been able to live with the ever-increasing violence in South Africa. She kept saying that she had done it for us. It seemed unthinkable that the gut-wrenching pain I felt being forced to leave my home was in my best interest. And although I have now lived in Vancouver for almost half of my life, I still do not feel a soul connection to the place; I don’t feel at home. This feeling of being a foreigner in a strange land has influenced many of my choices in life. I have been inextricably drawn to what comes from outside Canada, particularly to people who are experiencing a similar process to my own. Since 2000, I have worked as an ESL instructor, helping international students and new immigrants adjust to a new culture, language, and society. My own intense and ongoing experience of being a newcomer in an unfamiliar country has allowed me to empathize with and offer insight to my students in a way that is different to the other ESL teachers, many of whom are native Canadians, thereby creating a unique connection. Surrounded by these individuals of diverse cultures, and experiences, I feel truly accepted and appreciated for who I am. I have the sense of belonging I have never arrived at in Vancouver itself, a sense that may also arise from being comfortable in a community as out of place in Canada as I am.

Just over a year ago, I began volunteering for the Immigrant Services Society’s Host Program, a service linking newcomers with local Canadians in order to provide practical and emotional support during their transition, as well as foster community connections. In my interview for a host position, I requested to be matched up with someone from Africa, and was quickly paired with Irene, a young woman from Cameroon. We would spend Sunday afternoons together exploring the city, and I would give her advice about any uncertainties she had. Her exuberant personality combined with our common continent of origin quickly worked its way into my heart. Helping another immigrant through the painful process of integration was very fulfilling for me, as it helped me believe that my own challenges had not been for nothing. I only wish this program had been available for my 16-year old self when I first landed in Canada.

Over time, I have come to appreciate the good things about Vancouver, things like safety and respect, things that can easily be taken for granted. I have forged meaningful connections with people living in the city, many of them also from somewhere else, and feel lucky to have had opportunities I probably would never have known had I remained in South Africa. My perspective has widened and my eyes have been opened to a different way of seeing, a different way of being. Because of this, I now understand my mother’s choice to bring me to this place I still have a hard time calling home. But in my heart I am still South African, and I can no longer ignore the voice that has kept whispering inside, the call to return to my homeland.

In 2007, the year I turned 30, I knew it was time to reclaim the part of me that still felt incomplete, perhaps buried somewhere in the South African soil. I needed to explore what it meant to live in South Africa again as an adult, and thereafter make my own decision about where to stay. But it wouldn’t be enough for me to simply return to my roots, to reconnect with the memories of my past. I was searching for an opportunity to do something to make a difference in the country, to somehow contribute in a way I’d longed to but never could have done as a child. I needed to do something that put me in touch with the real South Africa, a role where I could have contact with people from all communities, a role that took me out of the box of my childhood days. The “me” of today needed to rediscover the country I’d left behind.

I searched for almost a year for an opportunity that would allow me to fulfill my personal and professional goals: gaining a deeper understanding of South Africa and all of its people; overcoming racial barriers I had been unable to while living in a segregated society; discovering my own preconceptions from growing up in South Africa and later living in Canada; spending time with my family and friends in Johannesburg on a regular basis; gaining experience in International Development; challenging my mind and filling up my heart . Eventually, I found the perfect combination.� Its name was Amazwi. The organization was created by an American journalist and its projects aim to empower rural African women through journalism education and community media development.� Amazwi produces the Amazwi Villager, a monthly print and online publication designed to educate both local and international audiences about current issues in this historically underserved region. Volunteering for Amazwi seemed fitting: I would be able to apply my ESL teaching experience to mentoring first-year journalists through their editing process as well as have the opportunity to manage the organization’s marketing and fundraising projects. An added bonus was that I’d be based near the Blyde River Canyon, an area I’d travelled to on my most recent visit to South Africa and which had immediately captivated me with its splendour. I knew this was what I had been waiting for, I felt it in my gut.

Then came the hardest part, communicating all these feelings to my mother - I dreaded her reaction, but determined, I tried to prepare myself as best I could for an emotional stand-off. I remember the way her voice rose as she tried to keep a neutral expression on her face. “And what about the crime? Are you happy to go back into that?” she asked. She told me more horror stories that she had recently heard from other South Africans living in Vancouver. She insinuated that this was a decision that would send me backward rather than forward in my life. I could see that my choice was as devastating to her as hers had been to me. She had left our homeland to protect me from the violence that had taken over many parts of the country, to ensure that I would be safe, and now I was choosing to head back into the same situation that had made her leave. I felt guilty for the way I was hurting her, and I valued her opinion more than any other, but my need to resolve this issue of missing home was too strong to deny.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave. Saying goodbye to my mom at the departure gate inside Vancouver’s international airport, I felt sad to know it would be a year until I saw her again. But this time it was my choice. I was choosing this leap. I was the one making the life-changing decision. Overwhelmed but determined, I walked onto the plane, headed toward the rediscovery of my homeland that could no longer wait.


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