Hard work, surprises, tough choices: Stories of immigration to Ottawa

·6 min read
Mina Al-rubaye and her husband Azeez Raad Azeez Sadeeqi are seen here at the Istanbul Airport in December 2020.   (Submitted by Mina Al-rubaye - image credit)
Mina Al-rubaye and her husband Azeez Raad Azeez Sadeeqi are seen here at the Istanbul Airport in December 2020. (Submitted by Mina Al-rubaye - image credit)

What is it like to arrive in a brand new country and start a new life? What can make the transition less bumpy?

With the federal government pledging to make up for a pandemic immigration slowdown by increasing levels to an ambitious 400,000 newcomers a year over the next three years, CBC Ottawa wanted to ask those who've done it for their advice.

Here are the stories of four people who chose to make the region of Ottawa-Gatineau home.

Diego Alcubierre: An entrepreneur starts over in a pandemic

Diego Alcubierre had his eye on Ottawa for a while before deciding to move thousands of kilometres north, arriving with his wife and two kids just before the pandemic.

"Canada was on our radar for a lot of years," he said, explaining Ottawa is similar in size and lifestyle to where they were living in Queretaro, Mex., a 90-minute drive from Mexico City.

There, he ran a business supporting solar industry startups. In Ottawa, he planned to launch a tech company that customizes training and events for runners.

The family sold their possessions and packed the car for the drive — but the day before they were scheduled to leave, they got the news their visa had been rejected.

"It was like a bucket of cold water," he recalled.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

A new city in lockdown

So they started over. This time, Alcubierre said they connected with Invest Ottawa and hired an immigration lawyer to help them apply under a different program. The family arrived in January 2020 and are on track for permanent residency.

Alcubierre said his daughter, 8, and son, 4, adjusted well to the move, and the business has thrived. His biggest challenge was arriving knowing no one and moving into a new home — 15 days before the first lockdown.

His advice to other business people looking to immigrate is to connect with Invest Ottawa. He said the organization has helped by welcoming him into a program that helps entrepreneurs build tech startups.

Though he hasn't met many people yet, he said he intends to rent office space at Invest Ottawa "just to meet people and to be around someone."

Mina Al-rubaye: A student gets a chance to build a new life

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

International student Mina Al-rubaye also had her "eyes set on Canada" as part of her goal to pursue an education abroad. She arrived from Iraq with her younger brother and sister in 2014 to start a degree in accounting.

Partway through, she returned home for a visit and married her husband. But now that she has graduated and become a permanent Canadian resident, she says she still can't feel at home because her husband is not here.

"The community that I'm part of is very welcoming," she said.

"But how can I feel settled in a place where what feels like half of me is living in another part of the world? There's always this missing piece to my full integration here in the country."

Al-rubaye has applied for him to come as a temporary resident three times, all unsuccessful. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada also confirmed she has sponsored him for a permanent residency application, which is ongoing.

Meanwhile, she has found work as an accountant and says the connections she made as a student were key to her success here.

"Be it going to networking events or just nurturing connections within the field of your choice ... that's what really helped me get established financially," she said.

Inga Bohnekamp: Professional setbacks, personal rewards

Submitted by Inga Bohnekamp
Submitted by Inga Bohnekamp

When Inga Bohnekamp decided to move to the capital from Berlin, Germany nine years ago, she wasn't sure if she, her husband, and her three-year-old daughter would stay in Canada long-term.

Bohnekamp's husband was launching a tech company while she planned to work as a child and youth counsellor and the couple opted to apply for a work permit for just two years.

"I've always been the adventurous kind of person, so I like the challenge and I like just being in a new place and getting to know people," Bohnekamp recalled.

Looking back, Bohnekamp thinks she was "a bit naive coming here." Although she'd imagined it would be "no big deal" to get her psychology qualifications recognized in Canada, she was unable to do that.

Instead, she carved out a new path creating mindfulness and yoga programs to help youth at CHEO battle eating disorders, chronic illness and mental health challenges.

Submitted by Inga Bohnekamp
Submitted by Inga Bohnekamp

Despite the challenges, the family adjusted to life in Canada. When that first visa expired, they renewed it, and then renewed it again. They are now permanent residents.

Her advice to those who are thinking of immigrating to Canada: pursue that option first, as extending the visa stopped them from feeling settled.

She also suggests connecting with community groups that support immigrants, such as the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, which runs a program for medical professionals who can't get their licence and are looking to transition to a new career.

Kevin Nyembo: An example in his community

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Despite arriving in Ottawa in challenging circumstances, Kevin Nyembo has fond memories of his early days in the city, particularly his first job, working 12-hour overnight weekend shifts as a security guard.

"It was actually a good experience. I met a lot of people, like a lot of nice people," he recalled.

Originally from Congo, Nyembo and his brother fled to Uganda in 2003 to escape the civil war. They were sponsored by a third brother living in Canada and arrived in Ottawa in 2009.

Hard choices

Because his brother in Canada could only sponsor two people, Nyembo had to leave behind his wife and his two children, who were 10 and 3 at the time. She was also pregnant with their third child.

It was difficult, he said, but "sometimes in life you have to make hard choices to go and facilitate a better future."

After arriving here, he juggled his security job with full-time studies to become a personal support worker. Even before graduating, he found work supporting people who are homeless and struggling with addiction, and has since become a supervisor at the same organization.

Submitted by Kevin Nyembo
Submitted by Kevin Nyembo

Three years later, he was able to bring his family here, settling in Gatineau, Que., where there is a vibrant Congolese community. He and his wife now have two more children.

The language advantage

For Nyembo, the most important advice to newcomers is, if you can, learn English or French — or both — before arriving.

"That gives you an advantage when you come here, when you're bilingual," he said.

Though settling in a new country can be a lot of hard work, he says it pays off to be "an example in your community."

"There's nothing that could stop Canadians from doing whatever they put their mind to do. So you've got to have that mindset."

Do you have an immigration story or advice to share about coming to Ottawa from a different country? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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