20 August 2010 Emigrating to Canada is seen as an attractive option for thousands of Gulf residents, but many underestimate the challenges involved
It was over a year ago, but the collective memory of their first Canadian vista is ineffaceable — a city blanketed by snow. The stark contrast to their previous home in a desert landscape only made the scene more vivid. Fresh from the sands of Saudi Arabia, this family of four now placed its first tentative steps on the snow white carpet of Canada — the country they would now call home. The Ali family footprints in the -20°C temperature marked yet another addition to the growing number of Gulf immigrants in the maple leaf land.
It is estimated that more than 6,000 Asian and other expatriates working in the United Arab Emirates apply for immigration to Canada every year in the hope of a better life. Among the more than 1.1 million recent immigrants who arrived between 2001 and 2006, almost 6 in 10 (58.3 per cent) were born in Asian countries including the Middle East. And for the first time in 2006, amongst the proportion of foreign-born population, those who were born in Asia and the Middle East surpassed their European counterparts at 40.8 per cent to 36.8 per cent respectively.
The Ali family are part of the burgeoning immigrant statistics from the Middle East. Apprehensions about the future added a chill to the resolutely sub-zero February temperatures, but the Alis were luckier than most. They walked to the comforting warmth of siblings and parents who were already ensconced in Toronto. This is how the patriarch greeted them: “Don’t look back. Look forward and remain focused.” The advice was given for good reason.
Everyone was only too aware of many Gulf immigrants who landed in Canada only to return to their jobs in the Middle East on finding out that their adopted land did not recognise their professional credentials, which in turn resulted in a lack of job offers in their profession. It is a known fact that Ontario has a large number of foreign trained doctors driving cabs to eke out a living.
According to a 2002 Statistics Canada report, one in six male immigrants leaves Canada for better opportunities elsewhere within the first year of arrival. Those who leave are the ‘cream of the crop’ — businessmen and skilled workers.
Migrants from Hong Kong and the United States were the most likely to leave, followed by those from South America, Central America, the Middle East and Australia, in that order.
In the case of the Middle East, examples abound where one parent (almost always the mother) lives in Canada with the children while the other returns to work in the Gulf, earning enough to support the family overseas. And there are numerous instances of others who, unwilling to tear the family apart, return to the UAE.
Salma Faheem Ali, has friends from both groups, and so would almost every other immigrant from the Gulf. A school teacher with several years of teaching experience in Jeddah, Salma attends workshops and other free community services offered by the government for newcomers, while pursuing her Canadian teaching license. Her husband, who did a career flip (from sales to travel) when he moved to Saudi Arabia, is bracing for yet another professional change. But that struggle, he says, will start once his wife is working.
In a rented apartment in another corner of the city, Neha Gandhi, who moved from a small Middle Eastern kingdom two years back is concerned at their depleting finances as her husband fishes for assignments and she taps into government services offered for new immigrants in the hope of finding office or administrative work.
Ever the optimist, she keeps her hopes high but acknowledges the rough ride, especially on her husband’s professional front. “He is a chemical engineer with solid professional experience, but that just does not seem to count in this country,” she says.
A trained media professional in India, Gandhi settled initially into a homemaker’s role when her husband moved to the Gulf and then took up a teaching assignment. It was when her son entered high school that the family decided it was time to move on.
Returning to India, she says, was not an option because, “though the children went to an Indian school, they did not learn Gujarati and they would have had to learn it if they went to stay with my parents in Gujarat. Sending them to another province was also not an option as we did not have any close family. And most importantly, we wanted to stay together as a family.”
That was the driving force for Geetha Manohar too. Like the Gandhis, the Alis and other Asian immigrants, she misses the lifestyle, food, friends and proximity to home of the Gulf life.
A single parent of two children, Manohar found it cumbersome to provide annual proof of her single status and when her daughter was in grade 7, she considered moving. “I would have to start all over if I went back to India and good education there is expensive. I was not keen on sending them to their grandparents either. I wanted us to be together as a family and Canada was my option. It seemed immigrant-friendly,” says this MBA from India who moved from a senior managerial position in Abu Dhabi to an administrative job in Canada almost a decade ago and has now worked her way up.
The twin factors pulling South Asians from the Middle East is children’s education and the impossibility of obtaining citizenship in a region where residency itself is contingent on work permits.
“There is always an air of uncertainty. You can stay in a Gulf country as long as you have a job and till recently you could not even own property in the Gulf. These factors are constantly at play and therefore the Gulf’s work force is transient. Most use it as a springboard to get elsewhere,” says Tarek Chaudhary, a Pakistani Canadian who moved to Toronto from Dubai in 2005.
And for many, “elsewhere” is Canada — a distant, cold country that welcomes immigrants and offers universal health care and free schooling. That support notwithstanding, the immigrants’ rollercoaster ride is well-documented and an oft-narrated anecdote. Madhav Kochunni, who moved to Toronto over a decade ago, says, “I was not hit by the reality of the situation till I landed here. It is when you start looking for jobs that reality hits you. Canada is not what you had imagined it to be.” But, he adds, immigrants now are more aware thanks to the Internet and increased reporting about their plight.
Like others, Kochunni (Madhu to his friends) too went through his share of struggles. An advertising professional, he landed a job as a telemarketer (like many immigrants do), but “hated it” and re-invented himself as a web designer.
In retrospect, for Kochunni (as for others), the move, while fraught with uncertainties and apprehension, also entailed a discovery of untapped potential as they venture into new professional domains. It takes time, he admits, but also maintains that immigrants can achieve success if they have the drive and a strategy in place.
And when it comes to kids, the verdict (paraphrased here) is a unanimous echo: “This was the best possible move for the kids. They have access to good education, community resources and the world has opened up for them.”
Kochunni has this advice for Gulf residents eyeing Canada as a future home: “Do all your research, save enough money, buy a condominium and plan your arrival during spring/summer when companies are in a hiring mode. And last but not least, do not give up. Be prepared to reinvent yourself.”
The advice holds greater significance in the light of a new requirement that calls on permanent residents to spend at least two out of every five years in Canada to retain their status. This means thousands of “phantom” residents will face a tough option: stay in Canada or forego their status.A move to Canada is no easy decision; the rewards can be massive, particularly for young children, but the country now demands a commitment. It’s one more aspect to consider before making a move to the snow-swept plains of this welcoming country.