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Chelsea O'Byrne

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On a hot August day in 2005, I walked into the Canadian Embassy in Cairo with an envelope full of documents and applied for immigration. Now, almost 13 years later, I’m about to become a Canadian citizen. The funny thing is, I’m not the same person that walked into that building 13 years ago. I’ve changed, a lot has happened, life happened.

Ever since I can remember, my father has always told me how he missed his chance to immigrate to Canada. In 1965, he was a young officer on a merchant ship that docked in Nova Scotia. When the crew got off the ship for shore leave, there were Canadian government officials inviting people to immigrate. Only two crew members took the risk. My father wasn’t one of them and it has always been one of his biggest regrets.

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Growing up in Egypt, I wanted to go to America! I watched American movies and sitcoms. I wanted to go to an American high school, play baseball and eat at McDonald’s. As life would have it, I did end up going to the United States for college as an international student. But life as an Egyptian in Alabama was nothing like I had imagined or seen in movies. I was a brown-skinned Arab teenager in the heart of the American South. It was … lets just say, an interesting experience. After graduation, I moved to New York and attended film school and it was there that I met my first Canadians. They were both friendly and funny and we became good friends. I remember their photos of Canada and being struck by the beauty of their country, it also made me recall my dad’s story about Canada. But I wasn’t ready to make the move. After six years in the States, there was nothing more I wanted than to go back to Egypt and rescue my country. I was going to single handedly take Egypt from a developing North African country to a developed democracy. I would use my film skills to eradicate poverty and injustice.

As with most bohemian idealists though, I quickly discovered how idealism can be systematically eroded by rejection and drowned in bureaucracy rooted in decades of dictatorship rule. It eventually became clear that some traditions and customs in my beautiful homeland are as strong and lasting as the Pyramids of Giza. After a few people I know had some unpleasant experiences with the security services, I finally decided to mind my own business.

By 2005, I felt I needed a change. I wanted to leave, I just didn’t know where to go. One day, while watching TV, I discovered that Jim Carrey and Michael J. Fox, two of may favorite American actors, were actually Canadian! I once again remembered my dad’s story and his regret and I remembered my Canadian friends and their pictures of Canada. I finally thought I’d give Canada a shot.

It took eight years of waiting. I vividly remember the day I found out. I’d been on a hiking trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and prayed every day for a sign of what to do next with my life. When I got home, I found an e-mail from the Canadian Embassy in Cairo. “Congratulations, your application has been approved” – I must have stared at that computer screen frozen for about 30 minutes, recalling all my good and bad decisions, my success and failures, it all some how seemed to have brought me to this point.

I was accepted into Canada under the Skilled Worker program. I expected it would be fairly easy to find a job, after all I have a degree from the United States and more than 10 years of experience in my field. But once I arrived, immigrant’s reality hit pretty quick. I e-mailed countless companies, went through recruitment agencies and government job placement services and I always heard the same thing, either “You are over qualified for this job” or “You don’t have Canadian experience.”

I constantly ran into immigrants from different parts of the world going through the same thing. Some were still trying and hopeful, while others became bitter, gave up and left. For me, it took two years of taking odd jobs, persisting, networking and taking classes at local schools before I got my first real job in Canada. Now, five years since I arrived in Canada – and 13 years since I first walked into the Canadian Embassy in Cairo – I’m finally about to become a Canadian citizen.

As my citizenship approaches, I find myself thinking what it means to be Canadian. How will I change as a person? My sister back in Egypt jokingly asked me: “Next time I see you, will you have blond hair and blue eyes?”

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I’m proud of who I am and where I came from. I will always be me, the same dreamer who hopes to change the world and make a difference. Just maybe not as young as I once was. As with all immigrants, I sacrificed a lot to come to Canada. I left my family, my friends, my job and the comfort and familiarity of a place I grew up in to start from scratch in an unfamiliar place, and that’s why it disturbs me when I read how some Canadians are worried about immigrants, especially non-white, non-European immigrants coming into Canada. Some feel Canada will change or become radicalized somehow. But immigrants coming to Canada, no matter where they are from, no matter their background, religion or ethnicity, all want the same exact thing as the early European settlers who uprooted their families and crossed oceans to come here. We all want a better life with dignity and freedom for ourselves and our families. Freedom to dream, to practice our beliefs, to speak our minds and to pursue a better life. All those new Somali, Arab, Indian, Chinese, Koreans and Jamaican immigrants fell in love with the idea of Canada. A place where differences are tolerated and accepted, where freedoms and rights are protected by law. We know it’s not perfect, but in a world full of prejudice and intolerance, Canada remains one of the few places that still accept immigrants, refugees and dreamers with open arms. We didn’t come here to change Canada or change the Canadian way of life, we came here to be part of it.

Magdi Omar lives in Toronto.