Over the past 50 years, more than 1.5 million immigrants have come to Toronto, fleeing war, poverty and persecution. We asked five of them about their first impressions of the city
Puente, photographed in his Hamilton home, was a student activist in Chile before he arrived in Toronto
Marcelo Puente, 69
Teacher, writer and musician
Year of Arrival: 1974
Country of Origin: Chile
In 1973, i was studying architecture at the University of Chile in Valparaíso. That September, the military overthrew president Salvador Allende’s socialist government. My friends and I were avid Allende supporters, and military forces rounded up dozens of us for questioning. They detained me three times, confining me to a small room with a bag over my head. They thought we were mounting a civil war, that we had a stockpile of weapons, that we had some grand plan. They released me after a few hours, but I was immediately expelled from university.
As tensions mounted, my dad suggested that I move to Santiago. Nobody knew me there, so I could lie low. I hid at my aunt’s and uncle’s houses. Soon after I left Valparaíso, the military broke into my family home. They were looking for me. They held my mother and brothers at gunpoint, and took my younger brother in for questioning—he was also a student at the university. They kicked him and hit him in the head with machine guns.
My girlfriend’s father was a Polish veteran who had fought alongside Canadian soldiers in World War II, and he knew a lawyer in Canada who helped me apply for refugee status. Two months later, on July 21, 1974, I flew into Pearson airport. I was 26 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever left Chile.
A cab driver took me to Walkers House, a hotel at Front and York streets that housed Chilean refugees. Toronto was flat back then, with hardly any skyscrapers. The tallest buildings were the shining black TD Towers—I had studied Mies van der Rohe in school, so it was exciting to see his work.
On one of my first nights in the city, I left Walkers House to find a place to eat and ended up outside a theatre, where a show had just finished. The audience wore suits in green and red, and hats with feathers in them. I wandered over to Yonge Street, which was pedestrian-only through the summer. There were clowns doing tricks, people playing classical music and lights everywhere. I felt free—it was so different from Santiago, where the streets were empty because so many people had run away from the city.
After a week at Walkers House, I moved to a rooming house on Madison Avenue. For that first year, any time I’d hear a siren or see a helicopter, memories of the coup would come rushing back. One night, two policemen knocked on the door. To me they seemed about eight feet tall. I didn’t understand English and was shaking with fear. I thought they had come to take me back to Chile. But it turned out they were looking for someone in another room.
Soon I enrolled in English classes at George Brown College. In 1975, the University of Toronto accepted me into their architecture program, but my English equivalency score wasn’t good enough to enter. I gave up on school and began looking for jobs as a designer. I was hired to do architecture work even though I didn’t have a degree.
Over the next year, I worked temp jobs in an urban planning office, at an oil company at Bay and Bloor, and as a drafting artist for Westinghouse machinery. I was also a guitarist and singer, and eventually I found a gig playing music six nights a week at a café on the Danforth named the Trojan Horse. I formed a band called Compañeros with three other Chileans and two Greeks—sometimes we’d sing in Greek, sometimes Spanish, sometimes English.
I met a woman named Constanza in 1976, and we’re still together. We moved into the Bain co-op at Logan and Danforth, close to the Trojan Horse. People loved the band. They’d smoke, drink coffee and watch us until 4 in the morning. We started touring across Canada, working with Canadian singers like Nancy White. She’d sing our songs in English, and we’d sing hers in Spanish. Our biggest gig in Toronto was at the Danforth Music Hall, where we played for a sold-out crowd of 1,500 people.
I moved back to Chile in 1982 to work as an architect for NGOs in Chile and Peru for a few years. But I returned to Toronto in 1988.
I realized I’d become a Canadian. This was where I wanted to be. In the 1990s, I started working in construction here, and I loved it—I even began teaching. Since 2002, I’ve taught home and cottage construction for the TDSB’s adult education program. The classes take place at Central Tech.
Constanza and I raised our three kids in a four-bedroom house at Christie and Melita Avenue. I have a grandson and a granddaughter now. I want my kids and my grandchildren to always be around family. That was something I had to give up. I miss my brothers, who still live in Chile, but I’ve spent half of my life in Toronto. It’s my home now.
Le-Hoa Luong, 40
International student recruiter
Year of Arrival: 1981
Country of Origin: Vietnam
I was born in 1976, less than a year after the fall of Saigon. My mother was from Vietnam and my father was Chinese. We lived in Hanoi, in a neighbourhood with many other mixed-race families.
After the war, as the relationship between Vietnam and China deteriorated, the government imposed high taxes as well as trade and immigration restrictions on the Chinese community. In 1979, our family, along with 450,000 other ethnic Chinese, were forced to flee our homes and abandon our businesses. My grandfather paid a fisherman to take my family on a boat with some 100 other people making their way to China. We were the 545th boat that left Vietnam. I was only two, and my brother Brian was six months old. I still remember looking out from the deck and seeing so much water that I thought we’d never hit land again.
We soon arrived at Beihai, a large port on China’s southwest coast, but we were turned away. After that, we were lost at sea for a week before a British naval ship found us and led us to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, where we stayed for three years.
One day, we heard about two churches in Canada—Glencoe Presbyterian and Wardsville United, both outside of London, Ontario—that were sponsoring refugee families. We secured a spot and arrived in Canada in 1981. Two years after that, we moved to Toronto’s East Chinatown, near Broadview and Gerrard.
It was a culture shock. In London, everyone was white, but in our new home, I was surrounded by other Asians. Over the next few years, my parents had two more kids, my brother Jamie and my sister, Michelle. My mother got a job at the Carlaw Foot Factory, sewing winter boots for $5 an hour. My dad worked as an assistant manager at the Swiss Chalet at Yonge and York Mills. Brian and I would spend hours at the Riverdale library doing free art classes while my parents worked. We stayed in Chinatown for nearly three years, until I was in Grade 5, when we bought a semi at Danforth and Greenwood. In 1986, our house only cost $114,000.
Throughout my childhood, my parents both worked about 100 hours per week; when my mom wasn’t at the factory, she made fried sausages and Vietnamese pork rolls, and sold them to grocery stores nearby. She also did piecework sewing heavy navy jackets for the Toronto Police Service. During my dad’s off hours, he took shifts as a delivery man for the Pizza Pizza at Donlands and Danforth.
Because my parents worked so much, my siblings and I never spent much time with them. Once, when my mom was at her job, my dad took the four of us kids to the Toronto Zoo—I was 10, Brian was eight, Jamie was four, and Michelle was just six months old. It was the first time any of us had been to a zoo. I was in awe of all of the crazy animals that I’d only seen in picture books. My dad still carries a photo in his wallet from that day. We had so much fun.
At first, living in Toronto provided my family with a sense of hope for the future. Eventually, though, the long hours at work took a toll on my parents’ marriage. During my last year of high school, they divorced.
The next year, I moved with my mom and siblings into a new house at Keele and Finch. She worked two jobs as a server, at a Swiss Chalet and a Pickle Barrel; she often complained that her hands felt numb at the end of the day. She’d leave at 10 in the morning and get home at 11 every night. My sister, Michelle, was only nine years old at the time, and I was always worried about the fact that she never had adult supervision.
I enrolled at York University in 1994, where I studied political science. Tuition cost about $6,800 per year. My parents didn’t have the means to support me financially through university, so I ended up with a $15,000 OSAP loan. I helped pay off some of my debts by working part-time at an engineering company writing reports.
After graduation, I got a job at Fieldstone, a private day school, where I did international student recruitment. At 25, I was travelling between Seoul, Beijing, Taipei, Hong Kong and Toronto, and spreading the word about private school education in Canada.
Five years ago, I started my own international student recruitment company. I serve as a liaison between the foreign students coming to Canada, their parents and their teachers. I also act as an academic mentor, ensuring that the students meet their academic goals, that they don’t flounder in a new environment and that the older kids choose the right courses to get them into university. Helping kids in a new country comes naturally to me. I understand what they’re going through.
For a long time, I wasn’t close with my parents. Now I finally understand why they were never around. It wasn’t their fault—they were just trying to make a better life for us.
Kaveh Shahrooz, 36
Year of Arrival: 1990
Country of Origin: Iran
In 1979, soon after the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran, the new regime jailed my uncle for distributing anti-theocracy literature. He got a five-minute trial and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, where the guards tortured him so brutally that he lost the use of his right arm.
I was born the next year. Every two weeks when I was a kid, I would visit my uncle in prison with my mother and grandmother. When I was eight, he was executed, along with thousands of political dissidents. The prosecutor’s office told us we couldn’t hold a commemorative service for him, and his body was never returned to us. To this day, we don’t know where he’s buried.
After he died, the government monitored our family. The intelligence ministry called in my mother for questioning several times, even though she was never politically active. My father, who was a student activist during his university days, was afraid of what they might do to us. He was a mechanical engineer, and my mother was a hematologist; their professional skills helped us get immigrant status in Canada.
We arrived in Toronto in October 1990. Our first place was a two-bedroom apartment at Avenue and St. Clair, which was (and still is) a predominately white neighbourhood. Two days after moving in, I started Grade 5 at Cottingham Junior Public School. The class seemed so relaxed: the kids were running around, playing and having fun. At my school in Iran, we sat in rows and stood up whenever the teacher walked in. It took me a while to adjust to this style of education—I was used to the hierarchy in Iran.
During those first weeks, I was struck by how quiet Toronto seemed compared to Tehran. Back home, neighbourhood kids always played soccer on the street. I couldn’t believe that every Toronto school had its own soccer field, and that most of the time, those fields were empty. I wanted to kick the ball around but didn’t have anyone to play with. I didn’t speak English, and it seemed impossible to make friends with kids I couldn’t understand.
I also noticed that my parents’ social status declined in Toronto. As a doctor and an engineer in Tehran, they’d always had a lot of respect. Here, they struggled to find their place. The language barrier didn’t help.
After one month in Toronto, we moved to a bungalow near Victoria Park and Sheppard, and I started to feel less lonely. There was a large community of Greek immigrants living there, along with Asians and Caribbeans. For the first time, I was able to make friends. Everyone was a newcomer like me. Within a year, I was fluent in English. Life became a lot easier.
When I was 12, my parents found a house at Bayview and Cummer in North York. Nowadays, that area is a hub for Iranian-Canadians—it’s even known as “Tehranto.” We were among the first Iranian immigrants to end up there. All my parents wanted was a neighbourhood with a good school, and A. Y. Jackson Secondary fit the bill. After high school, I enrolled at U of T, where I studied political theory.
During undergrad, I became interested in human rights issues and public policy, and eventually went on to study law at Harvard. I even published a piece in the Harvard Human Rights Journal arguing that the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners in Iran—including my uncle—qualified as a crime against humanity under international law.
In 2011, I returned to Toronto and started a job on Bay Street. During my off hours, I worked with other Iranian-Canadians to push the federal government to condemn the 1988 massacre. In 2013, Canada became the first country to do so. I never knew my uncle well, but I’m proud that I was able to get some justice for him and the other political prisoners.
Since moving back to Canada, I’ve also started a family of my own. I met my wife, Maral, in 2002. She came to Canada as an Iranian refugee in 1995 and now works as an internist at North York General Hospital. We live at Yonge and Eglinton with our three-year-old daughter and newborn son. We plan to stay for a long time.
Luis Alberto Mata, 53
Writer and settlement worker
Year of Arrival: 2003
Country of Origin: Colombia
Back home in colombia, I was a writer and human rights activist. I worked as an advisor for the regional government of Valle del Cauca, where I wrote articles about crimes against humanity committed by paramilitary groups. At the time, it was very dangerous to talk about corruption.
One day in the late ’90s, I was driving home from work when I noticed two men watching me: one was on a motorcycle, and the other was reading a newspaper in the rain. My survival instinct kicked in—I suspected they could have been paramilitary personnel. I panicked and swerved close to the motorcycle, and I was able to get away. That was the first of many threats. Another time, a man approached my wife, Diana, and called her a “guerrilla bitch.” A number of my friends and colleagues were being killed or disappearing. I received several condolence cards in the mail that said, “RIP Luis Mata.”
The most terrifying moment arrived one evening when my wife and I arrived home with our four-year-old son, Jacobo. As we hurried indoors, I saw two men standing near the entrance to our apartment building in a phone booth. One man reached out and touched Jacobo and said that he was a very beautiful child. I knew that this was a warning that they could hurt my family.
The next morning, we began making plans to leave Colombia. Dieter Misgeld, a social justice professor at U of T, had invited me to come to Toronto to talk about a book I had written. I decided to bring my family. We arrived in December on a one-month tourist visa and stayed in Dieter’s basement. All we had were my books, some poetry and the clothes in our suitcases.
We applied for refugee status and were granted asylum. After a few months, we found an apartment on the Links Road near Yonge and York Mills. These low-income buildings are right across the street from multimillion-dollar mansions. Jacobo was going to the same school as the children of millionaires. That’s when I realized Toronto was unlike any other city in the world.
When Jacobo was six, we applied to live in a housing complex called the St. Clair O’Connor Community, which is sponsored by our church. It consists of seniors’ apartments and 15 townhouses. I applied to bring my father there, and he lived in the seniors’ home while we lived 50 metres away in a neighbouring townhouse.
The biggest struggle for me and Diana was trying to carve out new identities in this city. In Colombia, I was an intellectual, and that had real meaning. When I got here, I did every job I could: construction, dishwashing, truck driving and painting homes. I was even a cleaner at Yorkdale mall. I am thankful for all of those jobs, because they taught me how to survive in the world. All the while, my wife and I took adult ESL classes with the TDSB to improve our English.
Eight years ago, I was hired as a researcher at CAMH under Laura Simich, who was collecting data on the challenges of undocumented immigrants in Toronto. It was my job to find Hispanic immigrants, interview them and tabulate the data. When I got that job, I felt that all my hard work was really starting to pay off. My wife got a job in the same industry, as an immigration and refugee worker at a refugee centre.
Things are going well for us. My son has just entered his first year at the University of Toronto to study history. He received $3,500 in scholarships. We’re thrilled to see him thrive. I’m now a settlement worker at the Mennonite New Life Centre of Toronto. I help immigrants and refugees, many of whom are in the same position I was in 13 years ago. It’s the most meaningful job I’ve had in my life. When I meet new Canadians, I tell them that this country has a place for everybody. I found mine.
Ahlam Jona, 56
Year of Arrival: 2013
Country of Origin: Iraq
When American troops invaded Iraq in 2003, the country stopped functioning—there was no trade, no one went to work, and violence took over the cities. The price of rice went up from 12 cents to a dollar per kilo. My family was vulnerable—as Christians, we were the targets of Muslim extremist groups who were trying to exert their power.
My husband was an accountant and a part-time carpenter, but as the war continued, he couldn’t find work. He started bootlegging alcohol, which was illegal in the Arab world. We tried our best to keep it a secret. One day in 2006, several masked men broke down our door and barged into our Baghdad home. They put me and my three daughters into one room and my husband and 22-year-old son into another, where they were brutally beaten. My husband was already weak from diabetes. After the men beat him, he became paralyzed on the left side of his body. To this day, we don’t know who the men were. They ordered us to leave our home that day.
We moved to a safer area in east Baghdad called Al-Jadida, which was controlled by Shia forces. I have an agriculture degree, but there were no jobs in my field, so I worked for an American company managing housekeepers. I couldn’t even tell my parents that I got the job, since most Iraqis believed that it meant I was siding with the enemy—two of my nieces had been killed because they worked for Americans. Soon, the Shia found out what I was doing. Four men carrying rifles came into our house while my husband and I were watching TV. They ordered me to stop working for the Americans. They said that if we didn’t follow their orders, they’d kill us.
Our only escape was Syria, where we had family. We moved there in 2009 and settled in a Christian community of Iraqi refugees. We lived off a UN stipend of $100 per month to help pay for our two-bedroom apartment—our two older children stayed in northern Iraq and sent money when they could. One day, we heard that a man from the Archdiocese of Toronto was coming to Syria to help bring Iraqi refugees to Canada. I’d just had varicose vein surgery and was in pain, but I hobbled for half an hour from my home to our local parish to meet him. Thank God I made it. I was able to apply for refugee status that day.
The Archdiocese chose us as one of their refugee families—our sponsor was St. Benedict Church on Kipling. But the application took time to process. We waited four years before we were finally approved to travel. Forty days before our scheduled departure, tragedy struck: my husband passed away from complications arising from his diabetes. It was January 2013.
We were grieving, but we still had to go. In April, my daughters and I arrived in Toronto; Lara was 32, Meryam was 21, and Roz was 15. On our first night here, we stayed at a sponsor’s home at Rexdale and Islington. At night, I was surprised by the complete silence. I was used to an endless barrage of air strikes and war. Even though I felt safe, I was overwhelmed with fear. Would I be able to work? Would my daughters do well in school? How would we build lives for ourselves? Those first nights, I cried myself to sleep.
Our sponsors helped us find a three-bedroom apartment in Rexdale for $1,100. At first, I hated our building. There were no other Iraqis who spoke our language, and the smell of marijuana would waft in through our windows at night.
The winter of 2013 was rough. Even though we were bundled up in our Costco parkas, we’d fall over when we walked in the snow. I’d never felt that kind of cold before. That year, I was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which flared up because of all of the stress. My MS has improved now, and I receive disability payments every month, which help with rent and groceries.
My daughters have done well in Toronto. Lara got a job at a bakery within two months of moving here, and Roz works at a banquet hall. They help me with everything, including rent, car insurance and groceries. We often go out to eat at Turkish or Iraqi restaurants; our favourite places are Anatolia in Etobicoke, Mustafa on Wilson and Al Tanoor in Scarborough.
My dream is that the girls can all get jobs in their chosen fields one day. Lara wants to study travel and tourism, Meryam wants to be an engineer, and Roz wants to be an architect.
I haven’t given up on my own career either. I’ve been taking math and ESL classes at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute, and I hope to get a job at an office one day. I really want to work again.