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Kati Rekai was Toronto's first lady of multiculturalism Add to ...

In 1948, with communists cementing control of Budapest, Kati Rekai stood on the banks of the Danube saying goodbye to her mother, Helen, and to the land of her birth.

To her mother it didn't seem to matter that the city lay in ruins, Ms. Rekai recalled years later in a memoir. With tears in her eyes, she asked her daughter: "How could you leave this beautiful city?"

Yet leave she did - along with her husband, John, and two young daughters - landing in Canada in 1950 after a circuitous route, a fair share of hardship, and a bit of luck.

In her heart, however, Ms. Rekai never really left Hungary behind. Instead, she worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between the new world and the old, a passion that took many forms and eventually earned her the Order of Canada and de facto status as Canada's literary ambassador to the world.

"My mother was the ultimate problem solver," daughter Julie said. "If anyone came from Hungary, if they had a problem, they had her number."

Helping new immigrants was, in fact, a family affair. Her husband, John, a surgeon, along with his brother Paul, a physician, established Toronto's Central Hospital. (It eventually merged with Wellesley Hospital and was then subsumed by St. Michael's.) Groundbreaking at the time, it provided services for immigrants in many languages and catered to diverse ethnic food preferences.

For Ms. Rekai, running a newcomer hotline and helping out in the hospital was just the beginning of her bridge-building endeavours. She went on to become a weekly commentator for The Hungarian Show on CIAO Radio and a columnist for the Hungarian-English cultural magazine Kaleidoscope, as well as a founding member of the Canadian/Ethnic Media Association, director of the Hungarian-Chamber of Commerce, and chair of the foreign affairs committee of the Writers' Union of Canada.

When Expo 67 came to Montreal, she felt bad that the many foreign visitors to Canada had little of educational value to take back to their children. In the determined fashion for which she was well known, she decided to remedy that situation. Thus was born the Adventures of Mickey, Taggy, Puppo and Cica , a series of children's guidebooks starring four furry multicultural friends who travel the world and welcome visitors to Canada.

"It was a simple but magnificent concept," said David Crombie, who as Toronto's mayor at the time championed the books. "But it was not just her writing. It was her involvement with organizations that contributed to the culture of the city, and always with that kind of a plural lens."

Kati Rekai was born on Oct. 20, 1921, in Budapest, one of two children of Desider Elek, who managed a hog-breeding operation, and his wife Helen. After graduating from high school, she married John Rekai, when she was 18, and had two children, Julie and Judyth.

The Second World War was hard on the people of Hungary. In 1948, after the country was declared a socialist republic, Dr. Rekai and his brother were pressured to join the Communist Party. They decided instead to emigrate, managing to do so just before the border was closed.

The family started out for Pakistan, where the doctors had been promised jobs. They got as far as Paris by train, only to find that the jobs had been filled by others. They struggled to survive on $150 - the cash they had with them. They lived in an unheated apartment for $1 a day, did the laundry by hand in the kitchen, visited soup kitchens and waited for a break.

They looked to the United States. Unfortunately, there was a quota system for immigrants and a pecking order, in which Hungarians were nowhere near the top. The doctors were turned down by 49 hospitals.

Hope came in 1950 in the form of a chance encounter with a Hungarian acquaintance who had connections at the British Consulate and helped them get visas to come to Canada.

When the phone rang asking them if they could come to the consulate, "We didn't go, we ran," Ms. Rekai later wrote.

After a 12-day voyage, they landed in Montreal, only to learn that the doctors could not practise in Quebec because they were not Canadian citizens.

So on they travelled to Ontario, where the doctors prepared for exams at the College of Physicians and Surgeons because their Hungarian medical licenses were not accepted. Finally, the family had found a home.

"Kati was very proud of the level of acceptance that occurred here in Canada, for all different communities," said Madeline Ziniak, vice-president and general manager of OMNI Television.

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