Give Anees a shot at his dreams

April 25, 2002

SANA’A, YEMEN – I’m sitting in a small, dirty room, on the floor, swigging a cola and chatting with a Yemeni I see for Arabic lessons. It’s my first visit to his place, and he’s given the pop — in one of those old, glass bottles from the ’70s — to make me feel welcome.

Anees tells me about his love for movies and how he’d like to work in America, where jobs are everywhere and money is easy. I nod understandingly. Somehow, the United States holds a certain charm for these people awakening to the world.

A gentle 24-year-old, Anees has hopes not unlike other young Yemeni. After finishing his accounting degree, he can work here for a salary he says might rise to $10,000 a year when he’s an old man. But his dream is to go abroad, if not to the U.S. then Europe or another Gulf State, save money, return home to marry and buy a house.

Canada is not on his list, even though for the first time since the Second World War, it’s stepping up by several notches its search for immigrants. According to the latest census, Canadians are having fewer children, and without newcomers the country will eventually die.

For decades, one in six Canadians has come from outside her borders. Nonetheless, a recent opinion poll also says more than half of Canadians now think there are too many immigrants around. What they likely mean is too many are from places outside its old pipelines, largely the U.K. and other parts of Europe.

As it is, Ottawa will accept 240,000 immigrants in 2002. A trickle will come from Yemen. Canada’s consulate here says a few dozen Yemeni get to Canada every year, a tiny flow which likely won’t grow soon since there is a not a huge skilled workforce here. That’s despite some big advertising. Canada Dry is a label on virtually every type of soft drink here, be it cola or otherwise, and the Yemeni love to drink it. Billboards dot this capital city.

I wear my ‘Canada’ T-shirts and hat often, and would like to think that’s why people are so friendly. Despite Yemen’s reputation as a terrorist country, most Sana’a natives are more pleasant than people in cities I’ve seen in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. I’ll often get a wave and an innocent, ‘How are you?’ from strangers proud to use what is likely their only English.

But maybe some Canadians would prefer never to see these immigrants. If so, here are some options.

First, send them to Newfoundland. You’re not fully Canadian until you’ve been to the Rock anyway, and since the Yemeni are the Newfies of the Middle East, they’d feel right at home. They’re like the St. John’s cabbie who, on learning his customers were visitors, gave them a free tour of the city.

More importantly, Newfoundland has room. Its population has shrunk 7 per cent in five years, more than anywhere else in Canada. St. John’s proper doesn’t even top 100,000. And don’t think Newfoundland is too impoverished. Yemen’s unemployment is 40 per cent and about three million of its 20 million souls live on handouts.

Toronto is Option B. But if you send a Yemeni to The Sprawl, first toughen them up. I suggest showing them Rocky. In the first of the zillion Rocky movies, Rocky, a bum fighter, is pulled from obscurity to fight the world champ. Giving an undeserving immigrant a shot at their dreams is a concept that could be uniquely Canadian.

Point out how Rocky likes to be beaten, so when the Yemeni lands in Toronto, home of a whopping 100-plus languages, and now half of Canada’s newcomers, he’ll understand that he’ll get knocked around. Even the most educated and skilled immigrants find themselves hauling goods and delivering pizzas. They may show they’re qualified as professionals, but still get slapped in the head by governing bodies keeping them out of their trades due to fear of competition.

As a last resort, there is the U.S. The problem is that the States has a population poised to double to 550 million in 50 years, and its ratio of young people to Baby Boomers is already significantly higher than Canada’s.

All satire aside now, there is little room elsewhere. The world’s 48 poorest countries are set to triple in population by 2050. Without big changes, many millions of people will be left without useable water and crop land. A poor place such as Pakistan has just taken in five million Afghanis. So what’s up with Canada?

Granted, I’m an immigrant myself. Born in Berlin, I arrived in Canada as a boy and later became very grateful because, due to bungled paperwork, for many years I was not sure my residence was legal. But I digress.

The point is, Canadians should be very proud of their coat of many colours that beautifully reflects the world’s mosaic. But it’s meant to be shared. Where we’re born is really out of our mortal hands.

Canadians are often at the forefront of solving global problems. So results of the immigration poll are hardly due to bigotry. Many respondents simply feel overwhelmed by changes swirling around. Their only option, I believe, is to look at how the rest of the world lives. Then relax.

It’s not a perfect trip. But the ride on Canada’s big, long immigration train is better than most. If someone sits beside you who’s different, smile and ask them how they are. And if by good fortune they’re from a place such as Yemen, do for them what they would do for you. Offer them a cool drink. God knows they need it.

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April 25, 2002 • Posted in ,
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