Newcomer Story: Discovering a New Beginning Through Migration
Elahe Marjovi, Theatre Program Manager
Technically I am not a newcomer. The Canadian federal government defines Newcomer as anyone who came to Canada up to five years prior to a given census year. I came to Canada in 2014. But I will remain a newcomer, a perpetual immigrant, along with the majority of the population of the country. I am grateful to the generosity and friendship of the Indigenous peoples of this land, who have welcomed us and share this land with us - newcomers and immigrants.
My first encounter with Canada was the Trudeau airport in Montreal in the summer of 2014. Having spent years on my immigration plans, countless hours learning French and English, working through piles of paper, here I was. Ready to take the leap. But what should have been an exciting moment soon became frightening.
Airports are not welcoming spaces, especially when one is a newcomer. The long immigration lines, the impassive questioning of immigration officers. Here I was responding in French to their questions to get back puzzled looks. No one had told me the French spoken in Québec was different from the French spoken in France, French that I had learned in Iran. I did make it through though. Putting together sentences littered with words of French and English – Franglais or Frenglish, depending on your perspective, for I wouldn’t be able to say with certainty. I wanted to return to Iran. Take the next flight back, away from this unknown future I was throwing myself into. But I didn’t. As you can probably tell.
Bienvenue au Canada (Welcome to Canada)!
Leaving behind one’s home for a new, foreign country is difficult for everyone, but particularly so for an artist. An artist draws inspiration from their past, their memories and their culture, connections that are lost in a new society. It is alienating.
But I found comfort in the theatres of Montreal. I was at home here. Immersed in its all-embracing experience, mesmerized by costumes, set, lighting and music. Each moment powerful, yet ephemeral. I ceased to be myself in that moment, ceased to be a newcomer, lost in the darkness of the theatre, part of the universe of the play. But it is a fleeting moment that comes to an end with the end of the play. I am myself again, yet different, carrying within myself a part of that universe, a universe that has ceased to exist at the end of the play. That is a unique feature of theatre, won’t you say? Its ephemerality. A stage that has been created for a performance is struck after the play, all the costumes disappear. Its ephemerality is experienced by both the audience and the production team.
I began reaching out to theatre companies after seeing their shows. As a Newcomer artist I had to build my network from scratch. I used to send emails to the directors and the organizations introducing myself and expressing interest in having a meeting with them to learn more about their works. A majority of my emails remained unanswered. I kept wondering why that was. Was my name giving away my “foreign-ness?”
But there were a few who got back. A few who mentored me, introduced me to the Canadian theatre scene. They opened up the world of arts grants to me and guided me how to navigate through the process. They took a chance on me and began involving me in their shows. All my firsts - my first arts grant, design job, came through the generous support of these theatre artists who responded to my emails.
I slowly began to find my way into the Canadian theatre scene, while I also started acquiring a new identity – Iranian-Canadian. I occupy both of these spaces now. I am Iranian and Canadian. Iranian because I am always dressed up, irrespective of the significance of the occasion, even on Zoom calls, while others around me are in their pajamas and hoodies. I am Canadian, for now I can address my boss, my professors, with their first names, without feeling uncomfortable - something I could not imagine doing a few years ago, and still can’t do in Persian.
Through theatre I was able to discover my roots in Canada, establish my place here. Theatre also allowed me to present my culture, my traditions. I was designing costumes for a play “State of Denial” by Rahul Varma, when one day, the sound designer recorded me playing “daf,” an Iranian instrument. The sound was then incorporated into the show, a show about Armenian genocide, being presented in Montreal, by artists from various backgrounds, some recent newcomers, and others older, all contributing to the multicultural canvas of Canada. Isn’t this multiculturalism Canada’s strength and uniqueness?
Happy Newcomer Day!