#NoWallsinTech: After a long journey from Nigeria, I’m now working to help shape Canada’s future leaders
Created in support of the recent groundswell of Canadian tech leaders advocating for diversity, this series offers a snapshot into the lives of some of the incredibly talented people who have come to Canada from around the world — scientists and entrepreneurs who are working on life-changing discoveries, launching successful companies and helping us build our knowledge economy in innovative ways. #DiversityIsOurStrength
My journey to Canada was a bit roundabout and came from a place of some sadness.
My father came to Toronto from Nigeria in the 1970s to study. He brought my mom here, and eventually they had my brother and sister, and became citizens. When my father finished school, he moved the family back to Nigeria, thinking that with his great education, he could make a good living back home. Sadly, that’s not how it went.
Back in Nigeria, I was born, and one year later, my father passed away.
It was tough for my mother. It’s very difficult to be a young widow raising three small children by yourself regardless of where you live. But in Nigeria, when you lose your husband at a young age, it is even more difficult due to cultural norms. Also, with no social safety net, my mother had to make do on her own. She and my father had made a home and life plans together, and suddenly everything had changed.
She decided the only way to move forward would be to split the kids up among her family members and head back to school to study midwifery. I was placed with my grandmother; my brother and sisters went to live with my aunts; and my mother moved back to Canada to set the groundwork for our new life.
It was hard to be away from my mother as a small child, but there was no other option for me. My grandmother and I lived a quiet life in a small village in a remote part of Nigeria. She carried me around on her back, and I learned the local language (which I now forget). My mother would visit sometimes, but I never knew when she was coming back. I just knew when she was leaving because I’d see her packing. Whenever she left us, I would cry and my grandmother would have to hold me and close the door.
Moving back to Canada
After years of saving, my mother was finally able bring my siblings and me back to Canada. First, she brought my sister, then she brought me when I was eight years old, and lastly my brother. When I finally landed here, it was the first time I had seen her in two years.
Back to square one
The interesting part about our immigration is how hard it got when we came back to Canada. My story is similar to many other immigrant stories: You come here, start from the bottom and work your way up. That’s what my mother had to do. She had to start all over again when she had already started all over again.
We moved into Toronto community housing. My mother worked two or three jobs and had to go back to school again because her nursing qualifications weren’t valid here. That lady sacrificed like crazy to make sure we were settled!
At first, it was almost awkward to be together again because we had never lived as a nuclear family, but over time we worked it out. My mother always says this Nigerian proverb: blood smells – no matter where you are, you gravitate toward your blood.
Eventually, I got my master’s at U of T in social work and worked all over the city. I got involved in creating policy related to youth economic opportunities and social issues. Now at MaRS, I head up our Studio Y business unit, which focuses on skills development for young leaders. My family has also done well: my mother landed a full-time job as a nurse at CAMH, my brother is an engineer and my sister is a nurse, working in management.
Even though I grew up mostly in Canada, I know that as an immigrant, you have to overcome many obstacles. You have to work harder than the average Canadian because you have to prove yourself. I don’t think we’d have come back here if my father hadn’t passed away. We came back because my mother saw Canada as the land of opportunity where her children had the best chance of thriving, and we are thankful for her decision.
Lekan Olawoye is Lead Executive, Venture Talent Development at MaRS. Lekan brings extensive experience in youth policy, leadership development and social justice, playing a pivotal role in delivering empowering youth programs in Ontario. See more…