The Kindness of Neighbours by Vicky Zweirs
My father always wanted to be a farmer. After the war, and a year in a concentration camp, he wanted to leave Holland and follow his dream. He applied to immigrate in 1945 but we weren’t accepted until 1950. It was a long process, but in the end, it was worth it.
I was thirteen when we immigrated and one of six children. At the time, if you immigrated with a farmer as a sponsor, you needed to work with them for at least a year. It was a good idea, one that made sure new people understood how farming was done in Canada.
When we arrived, the farmer (Mr. Jeffrey) who’d sponsored us came with two cars. The problem was my father couldn’t drive. In Holland he’d never needed anything more than his bike, so he’d never driven a car before. Somehow, all of us piled into one car. I don’t remember how we managed but obviously we did.
There was some confusion and snafus with regards to our housing, and when we arrived, we ended up in a shack of a house in Oakleaf near Athens. Four rooms. Not bedrooms, four rooms. Two upstairs and two downstairs. No plumbing, no electricity, and no heat. Eight of us crammed in there. And yet, somehow my mom became pregnant with my youngest sibling. As a family, despite the challenges, we had a great year.
I’m not sure what we sat on during that first week in our new house. What I do remember, what I’ll never forget, is when the truck rolled into our yard. Somehow our new neighbours had found out about us and had come to the rescue. A huge kitchen table and chairs, one hundred pounds of potatoes, jars and jars of preserves, a rooster, twelve hens, even cakes and cookies, all brought straight to us. It is one of the kindest gestures I’ve ever seen but our neighbours didn’t stop there.
They invited us over, asking us to come see them. So we did. All eight of us, along with our little Dutch-English dictionary, made the journey to visit various neighbours many times. We talked and laughed, even though we spoke very little English and they spoke no Dutch. We would occasionally make ourselves understood, but the language never mattered. It was the warmth and welcome we received that was really felt. They even gave my mother an Eaton’s catalogue to help her with her English, since it was easier with the pictures.
We also started going to the local church. An Anglican church my father had been told. He’d asked if that was Protestant, and when he was told it was, we made the two mile trek out to it on Sundays. My father had to ask again if it was Protestant, as the kneeling was new to us, but in the end it didn’t really matter. As long as we all worshipped the same God. Sometimes they would play a song we knew, and we’d sing along in Dutch.
That became a highlight for our neighbours and friends. We’d get free tickets to all sorts of local events, but we had to sing in Dutch at the events. It was kind, but I’m afraid, deeply embarrassing for me and my brother as we were teenagers.
Four of us started school that spring in the little country school, my brother Tim and I both in grade five, Harry in grade three, and my sister Liz in grade two to get our English up. My teacher, Helen Galloway, was absolutely lovely, spending extra time with us in learning the language. She would use the objects in the classroom as a starting point, helping us learn about the world around us as we improved our English.
In the fall, Tim and I were sent to high school in Lyndhurst, which was quite a jump for me. I was only there for half a year though. I got a job, and at the time, that was more important than school. So when I was thirteen, I went to work for the Dutch ambassador’s wife as a maid in Ottawa. I made $50 a month, while in comparison, my father was making $75 a month.
By the time I was sixteen, I was working at a nursing home. There were only ten residents but I really loved it. But changes came, and after a particularly bad day where I was left alone and in charge of everyone, the minister’s wife of Oxford Mills told me I should quit. That I should apply to a nursing assistant program. It was a new program.
I didn’t think I could do it, that my English wasn’t good enough, but she promised she’d help me. She took me right to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Brockville and helped me apply. To do the course required grade eight, which I didn’t have. But when the nuns asked me, she piped up and said I’d gone to high school. And that’s how I got accepted to the program.
It was the best thing I ever did. I graduated and took several more courses over the years, continuing to work in nursing for years. Even when I had four kids, I worked part time. I don’t think I’d have loved any job as much as I loved being a nurse.
I know I wouldn’t have made it, wouldn’t have even applied without the help and support of the wonderful neighbours and friends we met when we arrived, especially the minister’s wife, Mrs. Dowdell. I have to thank my parents for their attitude about it. They accepted everyone as they were and the situation for what it was. No complaining about things being different in Holland, or letting circumstances bring them down. They stayed positive and that made all of us kids look on the bright side of things.
In the end, my father had his own farm four years after immigrating. We might not have been born here, but Canada became our home. I met my husband here, another Dutch immigrant, we had four children and now I have six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. If they can experience even a fraction of the kindness and warmth we received when we first arrived, I know they’ll be happy.