Here’s another article handed in for last week’s written assignment, this one’s by Beth. We had to find out a little bit about someone’s story and how the events in their life affected the way they view ‘home’. I met with Debra, a student from our Church, to hear about her family’s transition from life in Nigeria to life in Canada. It was such a joy to hear her stories and to learn more about Nigeria. I was blessed by her openness and hope that hearing her story, too, blesses you. Debra was 12 years old when her family fled Nigeria's conflict zone, the place of her home.
Debra's hands bearing the divided outlines of the countries Nigeria and Canada
Debra is interesting. She fluently bears the Canadian accent and holds the card declaring her Canadian citizenship. Yet, more than half of her life was lived within the heart of a different continent, surround by a different community of people. She was born in Jos, the Plateau state, nestled in Nigeria’s north-west collection of states commonly referred to as the Conflict Zone. A minority of Muslims there wish to see their nation convert in entirety to Islam and as a result, disputes, uproars and rebellion are frequent between Muslim extremists and Nigeria’s other major religion, Christianity. Although this was the political undercurrent throughout her whole time growing up in Jos, Debra remembers a time when she felt safe there. She remembers being able to play outside and not needing to lock the doors of her home. Things began to change though. As a child her parents tried to shield her from knowing the nature of the growing danger around her, and within her boarding school’s walls this was somewhat possible. However, in a particular crisis time, curfews were set by rebels with the threat of death for the disobedient. Stories trickled into Debra’s peripheral through the news and through hearing tales of loss from family and friends. At this time, she said, everybody knew someone who’d been affected by the conflict. She would hear about dead bodies lining the streets, their blood running along the road. Prayerfully, her parents anticipated that the conflict would worsen and that the threat of this potential was enough to completely uproot them as a family. They headed to Canada for safety from Nigeria and, ten years down the line, their house within the conflict zone still remains unsold. It seems her family were right, the unrest still continues and Debra recalled hearing that recently 200 girls were stolen from a Christian boarding school, some being reportedly sold on for $12 each.
When asked, “Where are you from?” Debra replies, “Milton (Ontario),” to which people respond,
“No, where are you from from?”
As a near teenager, the move to Canada felt exciting to Debra and her younger brothers, like they were heading into the setting of one of the Hollywood films that they’d seen. Within Canada, the moving around didn’t stop. They first spent a year in Brampton, then time in Mississauga, then in Milton, where her parents and brothers are still based, and now Debra lives away from her family as a student in Brantford, Ontario. Debra described integrating into Canadian culture and that although she was able to read and write in English (her native tongue being Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s four national languages), she spoke with an accent that gave away her African identity. She remembers those around her in high school pointing out that she dressed differently from them, despite her attempts at wearing what they wore. Although Debra didn’t feel she was targeted or experienced racism in its most blatant form, she recognises that racism in the Western world often blossoms systemically rather than in more obvious ways, affecting job opportunities of particular ethnicities. The statement in the photo above is a question she will get asked often, as well as people guessing she is Jamaican or from the Caribbean, ironically rarely assuming that she is of African origin. On one occasion, whilst still being new to Canadian life, a classmate asked her, “Oh you’re from Africa? Do you guys, like, live in huts? Aren’t you poor? How did your family afford the flight tickets over here?”. In telling this story, Debra remembers life in Nigeria, being from a wealthy family with opportunities and her dad travelling often as part of his successful job. She remarked that Africa is portrayed to the Western world in a very small, particular way by the media.
Now, Debra is very much physically in Canada and plans to be here in the future too, but she is rich from the lessons, memories and treasures she gained from growing up in Nigeria. These don’t get lost no matter how much you’re geographically moved around. When asked what she values about each culture which shaped her first two decades, her insight was impressive. She values the prayer life of a Nigerian Christian, remembering that they would pray for everything, for bread, for water, for safety whilst crossing the road. Whilst living in a country that doesn’t generally experience much need, she’s found that this creates less need for prayer. In Canada though, she experiences freedom and opportunity in a way that she didn’t in Nigeria. As a child, going to Church in Nigeria was sometimes made impossible because of the threat of being caught and consequently killed. Here she appreciates the ease there is to express her religion and to worship freely. It seems that growing up in two very different nations from two very different continents has allowed Debra to perceive and enjoy the strengths of both countries, being an insider whilst beholding too the perspective of an onlooker. Home for her is Brantford, because here her relationship with God took root, here she learned who she is and here, she says, she found her voice. She likens the importance of this not to mean that she must stay in this city forever, but to know that she is now free to go and attach to another place in the future, knowing that she’s been able to do it well, here, in the past.