Broke, hungry and just 20, I was too embarrassed to ask for help when I moved to Canada

This First Person article is written by Diana de Jurei, who lives in Surrey, B.C. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I walked out of my boss’s office, struggling to hold back the tears. Unfortunately, he had just told me he had no choice but to walk back a promise to give me a salary advance. I should have been signing the lease for a tiny studio apartment in Toronto later that evening. I could cover the monthly rent, but as a newcomer to Canada, I didn’t have enough cash to cover the first and last month’s deposit. 

As my boss’s words sunk in, I felt the ground slipping under my feet. I was all alone in a new country with no one to ask for help. I couldn’t believe I was at this crossroads: return home to Latvia or be homeless in Canada.

Growing up in Riga, Latvia, my father told me stories of the 1972 Canada-USSR hockey rivalry. Compared to his experience living in the Soviet Union, Canada seemed like a free and safe country, uninvolved in major geopolitical conflict. I became captivated by this fascinating faraway land and dreamed that it might become my home someday.

A woman standing with a dog by the Gulf of Riga.
Diana de Jurei, age 17, in Jurmala, Latvia. (Submitted by Diana de Jurei)

In 2009, when I was 20, I got a one-year Canadian work permit. My father’s small business manufacturing and selling protective gear and workwear went bankrupt during the 2008 economic crisis, and my family was barely able to make ends meet. And yet, they scraped together $2,000 to help me move to Canada. At the time, it felt like a lot of money. Little did I know how insignificant it was for someone who was trying to establish a new life in a city like Toronto.

It was a hot and stinky summer day when I arrived in the midst of a city worker’s strike. Toronto was covered in piles of uncollected garbage. To add to the unpleasant smell, I ended up in a hostel that called itself a hotel and had to share my room with cockroaches. I was alone and sad to leave behind my life, my family, my beloved dog and friends. I didn’t know when I was going to see them again. It was a step into the unknown, a country where I didn’t know anyone. 

But I was determined to make it work as going back home wasn’t a viable financial option. I only saw one path: to remain in this country so I could eventually support my parents. 

Finding work quickly was my number one priority. Between groceries and accommodation, the $2,000 my parents had given me was nearly gone. After almost a month of searching, I found a minimum wage job with a community newspaper selling advertisements. I found an affordable studio and needed only $1,500 for the initial deposit, so I approached my boss. When my boss refused an advance at the very last moment, I felt completely broken. 

Shell-shocked, I walked home that day for nearly 45 minutes to save the $1.50 TTC fare — that’s how desperate I was to save money. 

But I was unexpectedly saved by the kindness of a new friend I’d met just a week prior. He didn’t have the money either, but he felt sorry for me because he knew what it was like to be a newcomer. He approached his employer for an advance of $750, which was enough to tide me over.

To this day, I couldn’t believe that my friend took a chance on me. I had no furniture and had to sleep on the floor for almost a year, but at least I had a roof over my head. Some days, I slept with a winter jacket on and to save money on a down blanket. And I returned the funds to my friend as soon as I possibly could. 

My minimum wage was barely enough to pay my bills, and often next to nothing remained to buy groceries. I remember times when I opened my fridge and it was completely empty. Often a bagel and a coffee bought by a colleague would be the only thing I ate all day. I eventually became anaemic. Most days I was walking around on the verge of fainting. I couldn’t look for another job because my new work permit was tied to one employer. I learned about food banks, but never went, as I mistakenly thought they were for people who are homeless or in situations even more challenging than mine.

During those difficult times, I was often humbled by the kindness of complete strangers who helped me. Frankly, I was embarrassed to share that I was struggling in any way. However, my job selling advertising space in a newspaper entailed meetings with various businesses. During polite small talk, people would ask about my family and how they were adapting to life in Canada. When they learned I moved here all by myself, they were often surprised and sympathetic. 

Sometimes on a lucky day an owner of a restaurant would offer a free lunch and, at other businesses, I would be given something useful to take home. After one of those meetings I even ended up with a pillow. I’m forever grateful for the kindness and generosity of the many people I’ve met. 

After five challenging years living paycheque to paycheque, I obtained a Canadian permanent residency. It took another five years to achieve the level of financial stability to sponsor my mother. 

A woman kneels next to a German shepherd.
Diana de Jurei’s mother, Nadya, with the family dog in Riga, Latvia. (Submitted by Diana de Jurei)

It was a very lonely life, and I barely saw my family in Latvia. During this time, my parents separated. When my mother got seriously ill and had two complex surgeries on her legs due to varicose veins, I was wracked with guilt that I couldn’t afford the airfare to see her. My mom was my rock. Canada gives people an opportunity to have a better life, but often at a significant price. If it wasn’t for her strong belief in me and enormous emotional support even from afar, I likely wouldn’t have made it. 

We had the same dream that one day we would reunite. Unlike the hot summer day of my arrival, my mom came to Winnipeg, where I lived by then, on a cold blustery winter day in January 2018. When we stepped off the plane onto Canadian soil together, I felt incredibly happy that I would get to show her a better life and the home I established for us in Canada. I had worked hard, built a successful career in marketing, adopted a new puppy and was now reunited with my family. 

Sitting in my apartment sipping tea, my mom was contemplative that day. She also said that if she knew then what I would have to go through, she would have never let me leave. I’m not sure I would have, either.

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