Life Lessons From My Immigrant Parents

Like most children, growing up I did not appreciate the tremendous influence that my parents had on shaping my values and beliefs. As an adult currently working with immigrants to Canada, I now realize just how much my parents and their experiences have impacted me.

My mother was a young woman in her early twenties when she crossed the Atlantic alone, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, before taking the train to Montreal, and then Toronto. She was the youngest daughter of six children, and had never before this experience traveled away from her familiar neighborhood of Kalogonia (literally "the good corner") in Sparti, Greece. However, she was of a time when dowries were expected of families by grooms. Appreciating how hard her parents worked, she chose to leave home to alleviate this future obligation when she, one day, would marry. Having limited education, no English language, little money and few other family members abroad... I am often amazed when I consider the journey upon which she embarked. I often wish I could meet my mother at the age of 25 and discuss her fears, challenges and hopes at the time. But she survived, indeed succeeded, in many ways... with grace, determination and tremendous kindness, bringing to Canada a future husband, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews.

As a man in that era, my father had the opportunity to travel more than my mother before arriving in Canada; mandatory military duty at that time for all Greek men meant that he had seen many parts of the country, including snowy parts of Northern Greece (a prelude of things to come, perhaps). Born and raised in a small village in southern Greece, my father's entrepreneurial spirit shone through from a young age: He was the first young man in his village to buy a bicycle as a means of transportation, and to set up shop as a tailor in the next village. But he wanted more, beyond Greece, and when a friend he trusted told him his sister in Canada was "of age" for marriage... my father agreed to the engagement and subsequent travel across the Atlantic. He, too, arrived without much money, no English language and limited education, but a drive to succeed, a strong work ethic and solid family values. Even in the toughest of times, his humor and positive attitude pulled him forward. To this day, "don't worry, be happy" is one of his favorite English sayings!

Together my parents built a life as newcomers in a land they would come to greatly appreciate, one which they saw as opening up opportunities for them and their future family. Along the way, their experiences provided me many valuable "life lessons," including the following five:

Respect: Throughout their lives, my parents demonstrated a solid respect for all individuals, regardless of their background. They truly enjoyed people, with the result that their customers, neighbors, colleagues and employers from a wide cross-section of ethnicities, ages and income levels cherished them! Fundamentally, my parents also taught us to always respect ourselves and our families, which then made it easy to extend the same care and appreciation to others.

Language: Both of my parents struggled to learn English. They certainly found ways to cope, but on occasion my father would speak with regret that he had not more fully learned the language of his adopted country. There were experiences and opportunities he felt he had missed, as a result. From a young age, my parents helped me realize that the power of words, of language, cannot be underestimated for one to be a fully engaged citizen. Their struggles were my motivation to learn as much as possible, at all times.

Patience: Anybody knowing my father would agree that he likes to get things done immediately and would be surprised at my suggestion that I have learned patience from him! However, as a general philosophy, perhaps because of the era in which they were raised, perhaps because of the challenges they faced, both my parents appreciated that sometimes, some things... just take a little while. Waiting is okay; there is no need to rush through life, all the time. If something is meant to happen... it will. Born and raised in an agrarian society, they reminded me frequently that nature has its own timetable and cannot... and should not... be rushed.

Determination: My parents left their place of birth for an unknown country, with little information about what to expect. Each for their own reasons, was determined to make things work, despite challenges and roadblocks. They simply kept pushing through, not giving up in the face of adversity. As a student, whenever I neared the end of an essay or studies and felt I had no more energy or drive left, my father would offer encouragement by saying in Greek, "Τώρα που έφαγες τον γάιδαρο, θα αφήσεις την ουρά;" The literal (funny) question asked me how I planned to leave the tail -- when I had already finished off the rest of the donkey! But the essence, of course, was a reminder that since I had made it this far... I certainly had it in me to accomplish my ultimate goal!

Work and Play: This lesson is perhaps the most relevant and ties all other lessons together. My parents showed me what a strong work ethic meant. When they worked, they worked very hard. However, our home and life was also full of music, games and family activities. I still remember times after a full day at their store, my parents would close up shop late at night, get us into the car, and drive nearby for an ice cream... or further away to Niagara Falls to enjoy the evening lights on the water. They did not worry about "work-life balance"; they just incorporated both elements into their lives, when and as they could. Sometimes one area drew more of their attention, but eventually (with patience), the tide always seemed to turn the other way again.