Aleksandar 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, Ont., 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 monuments to the kindness of Canadian strangers.
In January, 1994, my parents, now 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 energy-transmission 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 check 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 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 epicentre 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 parental 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. Presently, 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.