stats
globeinteractive.com: Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail /globeandmail.com
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space


Search

space
  This site         Tips

  
space
  The Web Google
space
   space



space

  Where to Find It


Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business

  Sports

  Technology

space
Subscribe to The Globe

Shop at our Globe Store


Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business

  National

  International

  Sports

  Arts & Entertainment

  Editorials

  Columnists

   Headline Index

 Other Sections
  Appointments

  Births & Deaths

  Books

  Classifieds

  Comment

  Education

  Environment

  Facts & Arguments

  Focus

  Health

  Obituaries

  Real Estate

  Review

  Science

  Style

  Technology

  Travel

  Wheels

 Leisure
  Cartoon

  Crosswords

  Food & Dining

  Golf

  Horoscopes

  Movies

  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...

space

Services
   Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site

 Newspaper
  Advertise

  Corrections

  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us

  Reprints

  Subscriptions

 Web Site
  Advertise

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Globe Store New

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions


GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
THERE IS NO CIVILIZATION WITHOUT MIGRATION
space
Those who brandish indifference or deploy violence in an ethically misguided effort to stem the movement of people will inevitably fail, writes Aleksander Hemon
space
By ALEKSANDER HEMON
  
  

Email this article Print this article
Saturday, June 8, 2019 – Page O4

Aleksander Hemon's most recent book is My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You.

In December, 1993, my parents and sister landed in Canada. They had left Sarajevo in the spring of 1992 as the war in Bosnia started.

They bounced around, as refugees do, relying on family, friends and random kindness. All of their property and most of their personal possessions remained in Bosnia and Sarajevo, then under siege. After their application for landed immigrant status was approved, they borrowed money for their plane tickets from my uncle, and reached Hamilton a few weeks before Christmas. They moved into a 15th-floor apartment in a high-rise, using my uncle's loan to pay the first month's rent. The apartment was unfurnished, so on the first day of their new life they went shopping. But they could not afford all the furniture they needed - the remnants of the loan covered only mattresses for them to sleep on. They were conspicuously displaced in the mattress store, so a curious Canadian woman approached them. After they told her that they had just arrived from Bosnia, she offered to give them some of her old furniture. The same afternoon, her husband came by with a pickup truck loaded with a couple of futons, a table, some chairs and a few other necessary things. The futons had metal frames and sagging floral-patterned cushions which I can picture as I write this. For years, my parents kept those mementos of the kindness of Canadian strangers.

In January, 1994, my parents, then on welfare, started their English-language classes. My mother spoke no English, while my father could get by only because he'd once spent a month in London attending an intensive English-language course. My sister, 24 at the time, spoke English well enough to get a low-wage job at a Taco Bell, which she lovingly referred to as Taco Hell. (She would graduate in 1998 from the University of Toronto, with a degree in peace and conflict studies.) In their English classes, my parents met other immigrants and refugees, many of them from the former Yugoslavia.

So it was a fellow former Yugoslav my father accompanied to a job interview at National Steel Car in the spring of 1994; the man asked him to interpret, even if my father wasn't exactly fluent. In Bosnia, my father had been an engineer designing energytransmission systems; wrangling electricity came easy to him, so he inquired on the spot if the National Steel Car also had any electrician positions open. They did, and he could start immediately, a manager told him, provided that he had his own tools and gear, including a pair of steel-toe boots. Tools and steel-toe boots cost money, and my family had none, my uncle's loan long spent. My father called me in Chicago, where I lived, to ask for help and/or advice. I could not help, as I was working for minimum wage at the time and struggling to pay my bills, but I advised him to talk to their social worker. Ontario's government provided for people in my father's situation: the social worker cut him a $250 cheque to buy the tools and the boots. He got a job maintaining electrical systems at National Steel Car, and worked there through his retirement a decade or so later. To pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you first need to have the boots.

My mother continued to take English classes until she reached Level 3 (of five), learning enough to be hired as a superintendent at a Royal LePage apartment building. My parents moved into the building, where they could live rent-free. My mother cleaned the building, my father wrangled the garbage; she watered the plants in the lobby, he changed bulbs and unclogged toilets. They got along with their tenants, not least because the majority were new immigrants.

Soon, more family members arrived from Bosnia, where the war was still going on. First, my cousin arrived with his wife and baby son, followed by my father's youngest brother and his crew; and then another brother, and another cousin, and more kept coming. My parents were the anchor for the boatloads of family - about a hundred live in Eastern Ontario today, sorted out in four generations.

In E.M. Forster's Howards End, Mrs.

Wilcox, whose devotion to her family country house is the centre of the narrative, tells the itinerant Margaret Schlegel: "To be parted from your house, your father's house - it oughtn't to be allowed. It is worse than dying ... Can what they call civilization be right, if people mayn't die in the room where they were born?" The good Mrs. Wilcox conceived of civilization as a static, unchanging structure, rooted in some set of everlasting values, where a properly civilized person is always at home, even in an ever-changing world - or rather, particularly in an ever-changing world.

If that is what civilization is, it's never been available to me and my people - few of us die in the country of our birth, let alone in the room we were born in. My family have always migrated; displacement is our dominant trait. More than 100 years ago, a few hundred Ukrainian-speaking families travelled from Galicia and Bukovina, the easternmost provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to settle in Bosnia, which had been recently annexed to the empire. Among them were my paternal grandparents; they were children at the time and would never set foot again in the land of their birth. They arrived as imperial subjects and died, a few wars and countries later, as citizens of the socialist Yugoslavia. They crossed borders, traversed unchanging civilizations just before their inescapable collapse, spoke by necessity a number of languages, none of them perfectly, and carried their scarce belongings and a wealth of songs and stories. Quite a few people on both sides of my family were displaced by the most recent war. Currently, in addition to the few still in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, we have family in Ukraine (the descendants of the left-behinds), in Poland (as my grandmother was half Polish), as well as in England, France, Italy, Sweden, Australia and, of course, Canada.

None of us is what we once used to be; but our host countries have also been changed by our presence.

Migration is inescapably transformation, and it is that transformative potential that might terrify the natives. Indeed, some would deem my ever-migrating family as insufficiently civilized because we're born in distant lands and tend to die elsewhere. In the current worldwide epidemic of fascist xenophobia, migrants are commonly represented as hordes driven by some obscure barbaric hunger, eager to soil and despoil "our" everlasting homeland.

To the xenophobic mind, migrants are seen, even if docile and willing to work for low wages, as congenitally and/or culturally incapable of comprehending "our" transcendent civilizational values, and can therefore never truly appreciate this place, "our" only home. In the United States, where I still live, the current government cages migrant children; in the Mediterranean, boatloads of people drown daily; families march across Europe looking for a place where their children could be safe.

Can what they call civilization be right if it doesn't have the will and capacity to help strangers in need?

All those who brandish indifference or deploy violence in an ethically (and politically) misguided effort to stem the movement of people will inevitably fail, for migration is in fact the very engine of civilization. People have been moving since our forecousins took their knuckles off the ground to reach for the sweet fruit over their head. There is absolutely no civilization without migration; without knowledge and fresh genes carried across vast spaces, without the experience and stories accumulated along the way, we would still be telling the old myths of our inbred clan and painting our cattle on the cave walls.

What makes people leave their homes to migrate elsewhere is a complex combination of distress, despair, and hope, but a successful arrival is entirely dependent on the supplies of simple human kindness.

My parents are lucky enough to have run into a few kind people. It was that kindness that made them Canadian.

Associated Graphic

Aleksander Hemon's parents came to Canada in 1993 from Sarajevo, and built a life here out of hard work and the kindness of their new neighbours.

COURTESY OF ALEKSANDAR HEMON/HAMISH HAMILTON CANADA


Huh? How did I get here?
Return to Main Marcus_Gee Page
Subscribe to
The Globe and Mail
 

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement
space

Need CPR for your RSP? Check your portfolio’s pulse and lower yours by improving the overall health of your investments. Click here.

Advertisement

7-Day Site Search
    

Breaking News



Today's Weather


Inside

Rick Salutin
Merrily marching
off to war
Roy MacGregor
Duct tape might hold
when panic strikes


Editorial
Where Manley is going with his first budget




space

Columnists



For a columnist's most recent stories, click on their name below.

 National


Roy MacGregor arrow
This Country
space
Jeffrey Simpson arrow
The Nation
space
Margaret Wente arrow
Counterpoint
space
Hugh Winsor  arrow
The Power Game
space
 Business


Rob Carrick arrow
Personal Finance
space
Drew Fagan arrow
The Big Picture
space
Mathew Ingram arrow
space
Brent Jang arrow
Business West
space
Brian Milner arrow
Taking Stock
space
Eric Reguly arrow
To The Point
space
Andrew Willis arrow
Streetwise
space
 Sports


Stephen Brunt arrow
The Game
space
Eric Duhatschek arrow
space
Allan Maki arrow
space
William Houston arrow
Truth & Rumours
space
Lorne Rubenstein arrow
Golf
space
 The Arts


John Doyle arrow
Television
space
John MacLachlan Gray arrow
Gray's Anatomy
space
David Macfarlane arrow
Cheap Seats
space
Johanna Schneller arrow
Moviegoer
space
 Comment


Murray Campbell arrow
Ontario Politics
space
Lysiane Gagnon arrow
Inside Quebec
space
Marcus Gee arrow
The World
space
William Johnson arrow
Pit Bill
space
Paul Knox arrow
Worldbeat
space
Heather Mallick arrow
As If
space
Leah McLaren arrow
Generation Why
space
Rex Murphy arrow
Japes of Wrath
space
Rick Salutin arrow
On The Other Hand
space
Paul Sullivan arrow
The West
space
William Thorsell arrow
space





Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page