Last week I had the honour of hearing a handful of refugee claimants speak about their harrowing experiences in the country of their birth. It made me realize how much I have to be thankful for. And how different my life could have been if I hadn’t had the luck of acquiring my Canadian Citizenship when I was 8 years old. My parents came to Canada when I was a baby, 8 months old to be exact. And we lived in Canada long enough to become full fledge citizens before we braved the journey back to South Africa in 1990.
My parents never planned on living in Canada for the long term. It was just supposed to be an adventure. And it was just that. A prolonged adventure with lots of snow, hiking and camping. But it had to end. It had to end because my father was getting older, sicker, and my mother missed the heat of her home country, the way of life. My sisters, too, had ambivalent experiences of Canada. My elder sister struggled at school, was teased and called a “jungle bunny”. My middle sister fit in wherever she was. But she was lonely and went through periods of depression.
Depression was something everyone in my family struggled with but nobody talked about. Ironic, considering my father was a psychiatrist who believed vehemently in fighting the stigma of mental illness. While he had compassion for his patients, the message I got from him was that people only get sick when their families are dysfunctional. And because our family was, in his opinion, a healthy, well-adjusted one, we had no right to be sick. He never articulated it this way, but that’s how it felt.
My father himself struggled with depression but that was understandable. He had had an abusive father, a neurotic mother and had gone through a kidney transplant at age 25, one of the first South Africans to undergo what was then still considered an experimental surgery. He had nearly died on the operating table. Though he survived, his life was punctuated with regular visits to the hospital. Sometimes he would black out, sometimes he would stub his leg and the blood wouldn’t clot. He was a sickly man and consequently had his share of dark nights of the soul.
But us? His children? What right had we to complain?
No one knew back then that I was struggling with demons that no one else in my family had had to deal with. I was entering puberty and discovering, to my horror, that my body was changing in ways that were not in harmony with what my mind felt.
In South Africa, though the law was liberal, the reality on the street was very different. I knew no one who would dare admit that they were gay. I knew even less about people who changed genders. All I knew was that I was trapped in a social reality that was squeezing the life right out of me. I avoided conflicts by simply retreating deeper into a depression that felt that it would never lift.
When I finally graduated high school, I had already seriously started contemplating suicide. But then my sister invited me to come live with her in Canada. I single ray of hope lit up my dark reality. My parents were not so easily convinced; especially my mother felt that it was a bad idea. But in the end she relented and I boarded the plane out of Johannesburg International Airport.
I fled without knowing why I was on the run. And I landed without understanding what it was I needed.
How much more do these refugees know themselves. How much they suffer for knowing themselves so well.