My family fled Czechoslovakia in 1980. Following a year in a cramped apartment in Upper Austria, we ended up in southern Ontario, where my dad, an engineer, had received a job offer. We were refugees with a few suitcases and a thousand dollars from an acquaintance in Frankfurt, but once we landed at Pearson International Airport, in May, 1981, there was a stable future ahead of us. I was six years old. My memories of that time are numerous but hard to enlarge into stories; they’re like individual droplets that together form a kind of cloud, an atmosphere in which my Czech self transformed into my English-speaking self.
I don’t remember my first months, repeating kindergarten with kids who were younger than me but could actually communicate with one another. This fog clears by the last day of school, when each of us was allowed to take home one item from the classroom. I remember seizing my favorite book, Little Raccoon and the Thing in the Pool, about a shy raccoon who’s scared of his own reflection and overcomes his fear by smiling down at the raccoon in the water.
I remember that when the (English immigrant) real-estate agent who sold my parents our first house came over to celebrate, she brought with her the most spectacular thing I’d ever tasted: Kentucky Fried Chicken in a bucket.
I remember my (Macedonian immigrant) Grade 2 teacher, Mrs. Keevil, whom I loved and who, seeing how I was bullied at recess, proposed something miraculous: that I spend each recess with her in the classroom.
I remember Claire, whose (Scottish immigrant) mother knew my mom and had probably told her daughter to be nice to me. Claire, a year older, beautiful and popular, was a totally benign Emma to my clueless Harriet. For reasons that still mystify me, she became my best friend, initiating me into the North American rituals of sleepovers and pool parties and cereal for breakfast and, most exotic of all, drowsy churchgoing on Sunday mornings.
I remember the (Chilean immigrant) doctor who treated my scoliosis and helped my mom—whose Ph.D. in metallurgy was gathering dust—get a job at the local university.
I remember one of my first Halloweens, when I decided to be the Princess of Mars. I cut out that title, in bubble letters, from green felt and sewed it onto an old purple sweater. Green tights, purple leg warmers, and a sequined mask completed the perfectly unconscious reference to my alienness.
I remember the (Welsh immigrant) friend of my parents who took care of me and my stitches for a few weeks after I’d been in a car accident, while my mom was in the hospital with breast cancer.
Recalling these moments of precariousness countered by acts of kindness, what stands out is how many were the work of Canadians who were themselves immigrants. The terrible irony of vilifying immigrants—now that nativism is seizing large parts of the world—is that they are precisely the people who tend to make the country they join a more generous and caring place. More diverse, yes, and in incalculable ways more cohesive. My impression of immigrating to Canada in the early eighties is that everyone we met believed this to be true.