I, the skinny kid from rural Rwanda who dared to dream, am now a Canadian

 thestar.com  7/13/2018 9:48:31 PM 

By Gilbert NgaboStaff Reporter

Fri., July 13, 2018

I would never have imagined it possible.

Indeed, for about one third of my life I never even knew Canada existed.

Toronto Star reporter Gilbert Ngabo is now a Canadian.
Toronto Star reporter Gilbert Ngabo is now a Canadian.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

I grew up in the rural parts of Rwanda, where running water and electricity were nonexistent and access to education and health care was only reserved to a privileged few. People like me seldom dared to dream of any future, let alone a bright one.

Yet on Tuesday this week I proudly took my oath of citizenship.

Me, the skinny kid from a decrepit subsistence farmland near the Tanzanian border, now a Canadian citizen.

My father once bought me a T-shirt with the words “Canadian Tire” emblazoned on its front. I had no idea what they meant. Nor did I know how to pronounce them.

I didn’t learn to speak the language I now work in as a journalist until much later, in high school and university.

As I sat in that Scarborough immigration office Tuesday with 90 other new Canadians, I couldn’t help but reflect on my journey. By the time we were singing “O Canada” in unison — for my very first time as a Canadian — I shed tears of joy.

I got my chance to be a part of Canadian fabric during my undergraduate journalism program at the University of Rwanda, back in late 2000s. That’s when a Canadian initiative, spearheaded by Carleton professor and former Star reporter Allan Thompson, which was training journalists in Rwanda, offered me an internship in Toronto.

During the three-month internship, first with CBC’s As It Happens, then with Metroland community papers, I also applied for further studies at different Canadian institutions. Later I got accepted at Ryerson — the first international student in the school’s master’s journalism program.

My first four months in Canada were terrifying. Having only lived in tropical weather in a temperate climate, I genuinely thought winter would freeze me to death. I risked breaking my bones from constantly tripping on black ice. Loneliness was depressingly awful. Regular food tasted terrible to me, for I had never eaten things such as sushi or hotdogs.

Even the simplest things didn’t make sense to me — like the sun setting as early as 4 p.m. or as late as 10 p.m., or people eating their lunch at their desks. I was also pretty ignorant on diversity matters, and once scandalously shocked my classmates when I said every one of them who wasn’t Black was white.

But I made it through the two challenging years. I graduated. I even got jobs, first in temporary corporate communications and later as a cub reporter at Metro. Four years ago, I finally fulfilled all the requirements to apply for permanent residence.

And, nine years since I first arrived, here we are.

Looking back, a number of factors stopped me from boarding the first flight out of here and instead make this my home.

I have chronicled in the pages of Metro, my previous employer, how my love and devotion to the Toronto Raptors ranks high on the list of those factors. Many a night I’d bury myself into the stories of their struggles, watch videos of their high and lowlights, and grow a bond to the city through basketball.

Classmates and friends I met along the way became my little family away from home. Getting a job in my field and a chance to do what I love for a living certainly helped.

But ultimately, like the stories of any other immigrants, it was just sheer determination to get a shot at building a better life that really drove me. I’ve since been working, paying taxes and abiding by the law of this land. My partner and I now have a mortgage in Whitby, and I commute to work on the GO. Altogether these steps fill me with joy and make me feel responsible.

And that sense of responsibility isn’t about to wane. Quite the contrary, in fact. I’ve been craving the chance to cast my vote in municipal, provincial and federal elections. It still puzzles me why I couldn’t do so as a permanent resident, despite having closely followed, and, in some instances, covered electoral campaigns here in Toronto.

I really believe thousands of permanent residents across Canada, who are working their tails off to make themselves and their communities better, deserve that chance of making their vote count.

While I acknowledge there are still many shortcomings in our society — systemic racism, police and community relations as well as a need for economic opportunities for all — I want to thank Canada for accepting me with open arms. I can’t take that for granted.

And I hope it’s reciprocal. The prime minister summed it up pretty well in a welcome letter — yeah, Justin Trudeau did really send me a letter: “Thank you for choosing Canada. Welcome home.”

I am home.

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