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October 12, 2017

Landing in Canada

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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It was a November evening in 1968 and I was riding an Ottawa bus. Everyone was looking at me, and no wonder. I was wearing a ski mask over my face, something more suitable for the extreme cold of a Canadian February.

But I’d landed in this country from my native Egypt just two months earlier, when temperatures in Cairo were in the high 20s. November here was just too cold for me.

At the time, almost half a century ago now, Ottawa airport looked more like a small-town aerodrome than an international travel hub serving the national capital of a country whose landmass on planet Earth is second only to that of the Soviet Union.

Things might have been very different for me a year earlier, in the summer of 1967 when I was getting ready to start graduate studies in the US. But on June 5, Israel attacked Egypt and I could not leave Cairo.

In 1968 I decided instead to choose a Canadian university for my grad studies, thinking it might be a safer option. I selected the University of Ottawa believing it must be Canada’s largest, being located in the national capital; that was the case with my home university in Cairo.

But it wasn’t quite the reality I experienced. I ended up sharing a basement office in a small building with three other University of Ottawa grad students – two French Canadians and one Chinese from Singapore. None had ever met an Egyptian before and I had never met anyone of their nationalities either.

We soon became good friends. One of the French Canadians ended up as a professor with the Royal Military College in Kingston and the other had a career with the federal government in the Department of National Defense. Unfortunately, I lost touch with my Chinese friend upon graduation.

As happens so often with grad students, even though I had been awarded a scholarship, finances were tight.

Before flying to Canada from Egypt, I had to borrow money from my uncle just to make the trip.

Fortunately, my British supervisor at the University of Ottawa understood my plight; in the first week after my arrival he kindly gave me a personal loan until my scholarship money came in.

He also invited me to a house party with other grad students and professors and it was a good opportunity to meet many members of my department.

I realize that my supervisor and his wife were trying to assure me that Canada was a welcoming place. Later, I learned that the majority of British in Canada at the time still considered this country part of their own and thus retained their British citizenship. All other landed people, like myself, were collectively considered “aliens.”

Despite the fact that Egypt and Israel are geographical neighbors, it was in the University of Ottawa faculty/grad coffee room that I met an Israeli for the first time in my life. He was a professor and fortunately knew some Arabic.

During my six years of grad studies we often discussed politics, and always in a civilized way, even though we could agree on only one thing – that the British were to blame for the big mess in the Middle East.

Of course, there was no internet or social media back then, and overseas long-distance calls were prohibitively expensive; so, the only way to stay in touch with my family in Egypt was through handwritten letters.

To keep track of which letters were safely received, I advised my correspondents to assign a number to each letter; the system worked.

My two Canadian grad classmates introduced me to the pleasure of midnight onion rings at Harvey’s on Rideau Street in downtown Ottawa, a 20-minute walk from campus.

I couldn’t believe that Canadians liked eating fried onions along with French fries and hamburgers. But I liked the idea of being able to choose the toppings on my burger.

Another strong memory was my first experience of real snow, something I had only seen in movies. Early one morning in December 1968, I looked down from my tenth-floor residence window and saw what Mother Nature had done during the night, covering the rooftops below in a layer of bright white, like a beautiful wedding dress.

My later encounters with snow were not as poetic. Ottawa winters back then were brutally cold and long. I could not understand why anyone would choose a place like that as the capital of Canada.

I tried skating on Ottawa’s world-famous Rideau Canal, and also attempted cross-country skiing, but was no good at both. I did enjoy downhill tobogganing though.

My English was good enough for me to do well academically and be chosen for the Dean’s honours list. And since the University of Ottawa was bilingual, I had to be proficient in French as well. But I found the required French course easy because I’d already studied the language for three years at high school in Cairo.

My Canadian classmates were kind to me and both had cars, which was a great benefit. I remember a very pleasant day trip we all took to Kingston on a two-lane road lined with trees on both sides. It was a beautiful drive and I found Kingston a very charming city.

As my circle of friends widened, I found a dozen more fellow Egyptians among the grad students of the University of Ottawa and Carleton, the city’s other university and we formed a group that met once a month.

I found Ottawa a good and safe city in the 1960s, though rather boring. But Hull (now Gatineau) just across the river on the Quebec side, offered a livelier nightlife that Ottawa students could enjoy on weekends. I couldn’t mingle as easily there, however, because of the local dialect.

During my first year I lived on campus in a male-only high-rise residence. I had a single room, but shared facilities with other students on the entire floor. The residence had a common kitchen in the basement and each student had a small cooler box; unlike a real fridge, it could only keep food fresh for a couple of days.

Once a week, I would go downtown to Ottawa’s famous ByWard Market to buy fruit, vegetables and a little meat. There was a good butcher shop where I purchased the only meat I could afford, fresh ground beef. I avoided fish and chicken, however, because they spoiled too quickly.

Today I have observed that life for graduate students – especially where basic necessities are concerned – is much better, even for foreigners.

While at the University of Ottawa, I was a lab instructor for undergrad students. I think I did a good job. They didn’t seem to mind my Egyptian accent and when they asked questions, I was able to explain my answers well.

In these labs, I was assisted by technical staff and it was from one of them that I heard the F-word for the first time in my life – not addressed to me, but to an undergrad. Later I found out the meaning, but I have never “dropped an F-bomb” in all my 50 years in Canada.

And so, I survived my first year after landing in Ottawa as an “alien” and passed my exams with flying colors.

… To be continued.

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