To all immigrant parents who came to Europe or the United States, to give us, their children, a better life.
Coming to Belgium
I’m a child of immigrants. In fact, I’m an immigrant myself. My mom and I left Angola in 1991 on the 8th of September. I turned two that day and we were on a plane to Belgium where my dad was waiting for us, since he moved there the year before. Both of my parents were quite young: mom was 22 and dad 27.
I was too little to understand. To understand the extent of the sacrifice. Because leaving also means that you don’t know whether or not you’ll see the family you left again. Leaving also means that you don’t know if the place you’re going to is actually better than what you’re leaving behind. Leaving also means starting all over, and forgetting what you already knew. Leaving also means that you’ll do whatever it takes to survive, as long as you don’t have to go back to your former life. It meant being financially responsible for those you left behind. Those who will never have a clue of what it is to leave for the unknown, because for them Europe is synonym for a land flowing with milk and honey. What they don’t know is that leaving means starting from zero.
As I grew up, I began noticing my parents struggles. My childhood innocence left place to a precocious adulthood that became pretty much aware of the not-so-great-life we were having. My dad was working really hard to sustain his family. He didn’t even liked the job, but his degrees weren’t taken in consideration in Europe. Mom’s dream was to become a nurse one day. But instead, she started working as a housekeeper. Both worked from nine-to-five, they had to put me on boarding school. I was three years old. I remember when my parents would drop me off at boarding school on sunday evenings. Mom had tears in her eyes every single time, but they had to. For them. For me.
Fast forward. We’re in summer 1997. I’m on holidays in the Netherlands. I was quite happy to go home at the end of the summer. Little did I know what was waiting for me. There was no home anymore. Our flat caught fire a few days before the end of the summer. We lost everything. My parents dropped my siblings and I at a family’s friends house, where we lived during a few months. Where my parents were sleeping, wasn’t really clear, they never really talked about it. Until recently, when my mom admitted that they would sleep here and there, and sometimes even in the car. It saddens me to see that my parents were always ready to put themselves out for people, but when they were homeless, suddenly there was no one around.
Writing about this now makes me cry. The younger me could’ve never understand how hard it was for my parents, but the adult me is feeling their pain. The pain of not being able to take care of your children. The pain and humiliation of not knowing where you gonna sleep the next day. The feeling of fail. And again, starting from zero. But God really proved us that only He takes care of us and that we shall not worry about what we’re gonna eat or wear or where you’re going to sleep tomorrow.
New home, new identity
Finally, the day came where mom and dad came to pick us up: they finally found a new place and we would have a home again after all these months. Our new flat was in Saint-Josse-ten-noode, in Brussels. A place we were sharing with other family members who were also having a tough time and whom my parents decided to help out. A place we were also sharing with cockroaches and rats. I don’t remember harder times in our life than our time there. My mom lost her job, since we moved from Antwerp to Brussels. Dad had to work even harder. On some days we wouldn’t even see him. He left for work while we were still sleeping, came back when we already went to bed. But it still seems like all the money we got went to paying bills. When we came from school, the only food we would find sometimes was bread and water. On top of that, mom started to become really sick. Physically and mentally. I was eight years old and I will never forget what she told me one day she was feeling really bad: “if something happens to me, promise me you will take care of your sister.” To this day, I still have nightmares.
A year later we moved to a small Flemish town called Willebroek, near to Antwerp. It took some time before mom finally found a new job, but we kept our head above water and bit by bit things were going much better. That same year we got our Belgian nationality, we were officially Belgians, which was an important milestone for us.
The heaviness of sorrow
My maternal grand-mother died on November the 11th in 2011. I’ve never seen my mother that sad. Her sorrow killed me, I wish I could bear it for her. Not only was she grieving the loss of her mother, but also the fact that she hadn’t seen her since 2006. She couldn’t go back to Angola for the burial (because of some personal and family issues). That too was hard. I can’t remember a day in my life where I felt as desperately helpless as I felt at the passing away of my grandma and my mother’s deep sorrow. Especially the fact that she couldn’t return to burry her mom properly. The fact that during the past twenty years, she saw her mom only once. The fact that she worked her butt off during twenty years, in the hope one day to be able to pay the best specialist who could have helped my grandma recover from her blindness. She felt responsible for her, as every child must be I guess. And once again, she felt as if she had failed. I hope one day God will give me the opportunity to write about my grandparents. From what I heard, and from the little I know, they were pretty remarkable persons. I never got the opportunity to get to know them, they died too soon. Their story too, needs to be known.
My parents bought their house nearly twenty years ago. Today they’re house-owners. Look how far they’ve got. They might have come to this land empty handed, but they worked so hard to send us to school. To have the education they never had the luxury to have. To have the jobs they never had the opportunity to have. And to have a choice in life. Because they didn’t. This is the legacy I want to leave to my children and I’m so proud of my parents. The greatest gift I could give them is to make good choices in life and to prove them that all these years of hard work weren’t in vain. I want to prove them that them coming here wasn’t for nothing. I hope everytime they look at me, they see everything they couldn’t have been, but that they still achieved through me. Even though they didn’t always gave us what we wanted: the latest toys, the latest fashion trends, school trips, and so on. They always gave us what we NEEDED! Pushing us to go to school, how to fend for ourselves in some cases and the most important lesson my dad taught us: never apologize for who you are or where you come from, never feel inferior because of your skin colour and work hard to obtain what you want in life.
Dear Immigrant Parents. We see you. We love you and we appreciate everything you’ve done and you continue to do for us. I’m a child of immigrants, of hard-working immigrants. I’m an immigrant myself. And I want to make changes for my former and future generations. I wanna leave my footprints on this earth, I want to honour my dad’s name. His sacrifces have to turn into victories.