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Being a second generation immigrant in Canada

Being a second-generation immigrant means to be born from immigrant parents in their country of immigration. However, for children that immigrated at a very young age and grew up in that country like me, can identify as second-generation immigrants as well. I interviewed a great friend of mine, Sylvan Khater, a second immigrant to parents that came from Lebanon during the war. Sylvan was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario where we schooled together and got to know each other’s stories. We discussed some of pressures associated with immigration, growing up between two cultures and mental health. I invite you to listen in on our conversation. I’m new at this video/audio thing, please be patient with me.

Experiences as a child in Canada

I born and raised for the first 8 years in Cameroon, Africa. My parents immigrated in Canada as students to follow their dreams and aspire to a better life like many immigrants to when they decide to come to Canada. As discussed in our interview, Canada has many things to offer that many people around the world can recognize and seek benefits from. I moved to Canada at the age of 8, and lived in Montreal, Quebec for a few years before we relocated to Ottawa, Ontario. When it comes to my own experiences an immigrant child, all I can is it’s rough. I was uprooted quite abruptly from an environment that was familial to me, a culture I understood and in which I fit in to a country where it was cold, no one looked like me and I felt confused about which pieces of me would be accepted and which wouldn’t. As a child, you spend most of your time in school, which for me was a terrible place to be. Girls made fun of hair, my “boy-ish” attires and people called me the N-word as if it was nothing. I used to get into fights at school because it was the only way I knew to defend myself; I hid in the bathrooms to eat my African foods because it “smelled”, and I was some teachers favourite topic of discussion in the school. I changed the way I talked to not sound so African, the school tried to hold me back a grade and child protective service kept being called for no other reason than my family being different.

As much as Canada was and is a promise of a better life, it didn’t come without emotional torment, racial trauma, and social isolation for a few years. I often felt stuck between two cultures: my African roots and the Canadian life. My mom used to say when you leave the house, you’re in Canada but when you come back to the house, this is Cameroon. Which was another unconscious way of saying that being Cameroonian AND Canadian was almost impossible because the society wouldn’t welcome it with open arms as we’d been showed. As I grew older, it became easier to find a balance, as I also became of confident and knowledge about both systems. As mentioned in our interview, you find a way to take the good and leave the bad both cultures have to offer, which creates that sense of freedom.

Although our stories started a little differently, they became rather similar as we grew older. As the great philosopher that Sylvan is, he says that he never felt stuck. Being stuck in his opinion is a choice one gets to make, as he decided to use his duality of cultures as a strength and not a weakness. Not to say that living within two worlds didn’t have its challenges, because it most definitely did. First, dealing with our parents was sometimes of a challenge because they are from a different time & generational values. Certain aspects of the Canadian culture are directly in conflict with the internal ethnic cultures, which brought on its fair share of disagreements and conflict. Perhaps, “feeling stuck” boils down to finding a way to live in balance of two universe while remaining sane and find out own way as individuals (a journey I believe we are both still on).

The roles of academics in the upbringing

I can confidently say that for many immigrant families, academic are also everything. Being that the goal of relocating was to pursue a better life and success, academics are seen so strongly by this community as a gateway out of generational poverty and more. If you are African and you are reading this, how many times were you told that you had 4 career choices? You could either be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or a failure. I don’t think parents do this beat down on their kids, or to minimize other professions but it’s from a place of fear as they want their children to have a financially stress-free life. There are odd parents out there that don’t fit into this definition that we all know of, but let’s skip that for now.

I do have to say that some of the pressure to succeed in school doesn’t always come directly from parents either, sometimes its self-inflicted when you see how hard your family has it. When you grow up watching your caregivers constantly worry about basic life necessities, you can develop this mechanism of “I don’t want to be a burden” so you start seeing your job (being a student) as something to excel in so you can show that you are doing your part. I used to beat myself up so much anytime my parent had to miss work to meet the principal, or when I caused any additional tensions in our lives. Even when you grow older and become an independent adult, some of the mechanisms never go away, and can transfer to other areas of your life until you do the therapeutic work. I’m a recovering perfectionist stemming from being and insecure anxious child and I’ve fully accepted part of me. It didn’t change the fact that my work ethic, commitment to excellence and drive to be the best are the same attributes that are helping thrive in adulthood today. If you’re reading this today from a similar life point of view, remember that it was not your fault that you put all this pressure on yourself. It was not your fault your family didn’t have means. It’s not your fault that you became a self-reliant child at a young age because your parents might have been emotional unavailable. Your trauma is not your fault. However, healing is your responsibility and yours only. You must get to a point in your life where you can conquer yourself inside and out, to live freely. You can run away from people, problems, uncomfortable emotions and more, but you will never outrun your inner self.

To all my immigrants, take a load off my friend. Tell your story!

Interviewed: Sylvan Khater, Author of two books.

The Kingdom of hatred (

The Kingdom of Love (

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