Digging up their roots

Rebecka: Latvia

Rebecka Calderwood and her Oma Elizabeth (Rebecka Calderwood / Ryersonian Staff)

Rebecka Calderwood and her Oma Elizabeth (Rebecka Calderwood / Ryersonian Staff)

On April 7, 1915, my Oma Elizabeth was born in Latvia. During the Second World War, she fled to Canada with her husband, Mikelis, to start a new life. With only one grandparent left, I want to preserve my heritage. I decided to dig up my roots in Latvia.

When I landed in Latvia’s capital, Riga, I found the next bus to my Oma’s hometown – the country’s third-largest city on the western coast, Liepaja. I immediately felt a connection with the land and people. The land was similar to where I grew up in Manitoba – flat meadows between small farm lands. Like me, the people had blond hair and light eyes, varying from bluish grey to green in colour. I wondered if I was distantly related to anyone else in this country. It turns out I was.

I’ve never met my Opa Mikelis. He died before I was born. He was the second youngest of seven. He and his oldest brother left Latvia to start new lives in Canada and Australia while the rest stayed in Latvia, a country developing much slower than the one I know best. My sister visited our relatives in Australia a few years ago and is still in contact with them today. She told them I was visiting Liepaja and gave me the address of our Latvian relatives.

I knocked on the door. We didn’t speak the same lanugage, but when I said “Elizabeth,” they knew right away who I was.

With a friend as my translator, I met my Opa’s youngest sibling Alvine. She’s 94. I met her grandson, who is only a few years older than me. I was introduced to his family – a five year old child and a partner, expectant with a second child.

They took me to the sea, and visited my Oma’s childhood home and its owner. We exchanged family trees and I showed them photos of our life in Canada.

My second cousin was fascinated by my DSLR camera. Appliances were dated back to about half a century ago. The bathroom didn’t have a door and the house – which couldn’t have been more than 1,000 square feet across two floors – was shared by seven people. I felt so fortunate to have my life in Canada.

Still, it was hard to leave because I didn’t think I’d ever see these family members again.

I left realizing the magnitude of strength my Oma and Opa had to leave this kind of life and start over.

Harpreet: India 

The ceremony  space of the wedding that Harpreet attended while in India (Harpreet Grewal / Ryersonian Staff)

The ceremony space of the wedding that Harpreet attended while in India (Harpreet Grewal / Ryersonian Staff)

This was my dad’s first visit back to India in many years. He came to Canada in 1981 just before his 14th birthday, the same year his father died. My mom on the other hand immigrated to Canada in the ’90s after marrying my dad. The last time either one was in India I was just a few months old. Almost 20 years ago.

My dad was shocked at many of the changes, though the patriarchal nature of the country is as strong now as it was then.

It’s absurd that in one of the hottest countries in the world, I cannot wear a skirt.

This was my first visit to India. It has been making international headlines for its horrific rape culture, police corruption and kangaroo courts.

India is a beautiful country, and many people may not behave in the same morally questionable way. But then again, many do. And the way of thinking is most concerning.

I went with my parents to visit one of my cousins in Ludhiana. In reality, Ludhiana, my dad’s home city, has more then three million people crowded into a city half the size of Toronto. When I met my cousin, I was shocked. She was wearing a skirt.

“Not outside though the city though,” she told me.

That made sense. I asked her if she wore skirts when she went out alone. She looked at me as if I was nuts, “You go out alone?”

The problem, it seemed to me, was the general acceptance of cultural norms that put the blame on women. I should not show my legs because men will look, so the problem is my legs and not his eyes.

I didn’t go out alone, although I prefer to when travelling.

I realized I wouldn’t have the same freedom as my male cousin; he went wherever he wanted and wasn’t questioned about it.

I didn’t argue. India is the kind of place where you want your dad with you.

I guess I can always go home again, but the question is: Do I want to?

Hana: Dubai

Hana outside of her grandmother's house in Dubai (Hana Shafi / Ryersonian Staff)

Hana outside of her grandmother’s house in Dubai (Hana Shafi / Ryersonian Staff)

Most of my family is there. Grandparents, cousins, aunts. I was born there. But I don’t see Dubai as my home.

I’ve lived in Mississauga for 18 years. Between 1996, when we left Dubai, and 2014, Dubai looks completely different. In two decades, Dubai has rapidly invested in becoming the most luxurious city in the world.

The old rundown apartment we lived in with my grandparents is hardly noticeable around a skyline boasting tallest this, biggest that.

When I tell people I was born in Dubai, their eyes sparkle. This is a place known for being a pinnacle of wealth, luxury, and privilege. But when I visit family there, I see Dubai for what it really is: opulence, greed, oppression.

You see the towering, beautiful skyscrapers. I see the people who build them; poor Indian labourers, viewed as inferior, working for measly wages. You see the mall with an entire indoor ski resort, I see the poorly paid immigrant nannies chasing around children as their mothers shop, wearing expensive abayas.

I have childhood memories of Dubai. After we moved to Canada, we frequently went back. When I’d visit, I’d play with my cousins and eat hot roti and cucumber with yogurt that my grandma would pile onto my plate. Palm trees lined my aunt’s house and geckos would come out at night, sticking to the bricks in the cool desert evenings.

But when I went back in February 2014, I went back as a woman. My cousins were grown up.

There was no one to play with, swim with or eat snow cones with. I was returning without the naiveté. I was well aware now about the downsides of the society here; the elitism and petty gossip that seemed to plague all my relatives.

If I were to further explore my roots, I’d be in India or in Lengha or Bastak – two small southern towns in Iran where my maternal grandparents grew up. I’ve never been to India and it goes without saying that visiting Iran right now would not be the best idea.

Though I’m proud of my culture, Canada is my home.

Ramna: Pakistan 

A photo taken near Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city (Ramna Shahzad / Ryersonian Staff)

A photo taken near Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city (Ramna Shahzad / Ryersonian Staff)

I lived in Karachi until 2001. My childhood memories of the city are some of the best I have. I had a goat that I took out for walks instead of a dog. I didn’t get Christmas presents but my aunts and uncles did give me money for Eid. It never snowed but the monsoon season meant lots of dancing in the rain.

After spending the next decade or so in a different country – Bahrain in the Middle-East – I felt more and more detached from my home country each year. What kept me rooted was family. My cousins, my grandmother, my aunts and my uncles who my family kept in touch in whatever way we could. Family was also the reason we travelled back as often as we could.

The last time I visited Karachi was in 2008 – for my cousin’s Big Fat Pakistani Wedding. I was 15 years old and keen to reconnect with my roots.

It was becoming more and more common at the time (now it’s basically necessary) to carry two cell-phones around. One was your regular (valuable) phone – an iPhone or Blackberry – and the other was your old Nokia. This was because it was totally normal for an average Karachi resident to be held up at gun point and hand over everything – wallet, cell-phone and often car keys.

During my last visit to Karachi, I could squish into the back seat of a Toyota with seven of my cousins and go for ice-cream late at night. Today, that would be a death-wish.

I danced till I was out of breath at my cousin’s wedding and ate as much traditional food as I could (although trying the street food left me bed-ridden for days).

The summer following my visit, I moved to Canada. I haven’t gone back since. Karachi has steadily become a more dangerous place year after year – especially for people who live abroad. It’s also a lot more expensive to book a flight home all the way from the other side of the world.

But I plan on going back as soon as I have enough money saved up. I miss my grandmother, my cousins, and I really just want to regret eating that delicious street food again.


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