When I immigrated to the United States, I was only a few months old. My parents and I weren’t running from civil war, religious persecution or a violent dictatorship. My dad had gotten a job offer, and he, my mom and I were following the opportunity.
I can’t say the same about my grandparents. When they arrived in Canada in 1948, they had just survived the Holocaust. My grandfather had escaped from the Nazis on a march from one concentration camp to another. My grandmother had fake papers and worked as a maid for a Christian family. When they arrived in Canada, they left behind the horrors of a genocide, the countries and languages they knew, and the graves of their parents and most of their siblings.
When I arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, we had a house, my dad had a job and we spoke the language. Sure, we couldn’t get coffee from Timmies — but that’s a not a large price to pay.
The same can't be said for my grandparents. They moved in with siblings. My grandmother worked at a tie factory, where she was paid per tie, and dealt with a boss who offered her extra money for sexual favours. My grandfather worked as a waiter and went to school. They both had to learn English. With the money from waiting tables and the tie factory, my grandfather graduated accounting school, near the top of his class in the province, and opened a small firm. Forty odd years later and they had three kids, all graduated from medical school.
Then I came along and with my parents, I moved to the US. One of my earliest memories was taking the train into Boston — we lived just outside city limits — with my mom to renew our green cards. We waited in line for what felt like hours before speaking to the immigration official. A little while later we walked out, permanent residents for another decade.
One day in high school, I missed class for a day to go into Boston and become a citizen. A few months of paperwork, an oath and a bunch of signatures later (I didn’t have to take a test because I had been in American schools my whole life) and they handed me a flag.
“Congrats,” the woman behind bulletproof glass said. “You’re an American.”
Growing up, I was always the only Canadian in the class. In my cozy, white, upper-middle class New England town, I was usually the only immigrant in the room. Being Canadian, as silly as it sounds, made me different. Now I work in a newsroom where half the editors are immigrants. I'm the norm.
In Canada, 40 per cent of the population is first or second-generation Canadian. This diversity strengthens Canada and communities around the world. Research says having more women in boardrooms increases profits. It says more diverse groups come up with more innovative and successful solutions to problems. Almost half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. The fact is that diversity is a positive force in the world. It can be really, brutally hard — but it makes you, me and our community stronger.
Here at UBC, we know this. We’re one of the most diverse campuses on the planet in one of the most diverse cities in the world, in a country that ranks in the top 20 for diversity. We have our problems, our hatred and our bigotry, and we could certainly work to be better. But we have it good. We reap the benefits of our diversity in our education, in our relationships, in our economy and even in our food.
Today, more than we may want to admit, standing up for this diversity is important. Go out and learn about new cultures. Make friends from different religions. Learn a new language, try a new food. Sit down with people you disagree with and listen. Build your empathy everyday, any way you can. From this empathy, we draw strength and can build a better, safer and more peaceful world.