My First Winters in Canada Were Cold—But My New Friends Kept My Heart Warm

When I moved to Canada, my friend Caroline told me that Canadians have warm hearts. The kindness I received from strangers during my first winters taught me she was right.

Toronto winter as seen from Ward's IslandPhoto: Shutterstock

Kindness is contagious in Canada

When I arrived in Toronto from Ethiopia in the fall of 2015, people frequently said, “You poor guy, it is your first winter? Oh my God, you need to get good boots and a jacket.” So many people said this, I was petrified of experiencing my first winter. The more people fretted, “Winter’s coming, what are you going to do?” the more nervous I became. It was as if a monster was approaching, one which I had never heard of or seen.

Then, one December morning, when I tried to open the door, something was blocking it. When I pushed harder I couldn’t believe what I saw. Mother Earth had been covered with a big white blanket. I touched it and tried to smell it. It looked like white sugar, but the snow was much more lively and charming; it was gentle and delicate. And it was love at first sight.

A year later, I had an opportunity to visit Ottawa and everyone I met warned me that the city is colder than Toronto. At last, I thought, I will witness a real Canadian winter. Indeed, it was minus-24 degrees when I visited the Parliament buildings. I asked, “Was that it?”

I’ve since heard that Montreal is often colder, while others say Saskatchewan is the most frigid. Still, others tell me that if I want to test myself in the coldest place in Canada, I need to go to Winnipeg.

“Canada is a cold country, but the people have warm hearts,” Caroline, one of my first Canadian friends, said. And it didn’t take me long to figure out what she meant by that.

When I arrived, I was worried about where to stay and how to start a new life. I was a total stranger to Caroline, but she hosted me for more than a year and considered me as one of her family members. Caroline belongs to PEN Canada, a chapter of an international group that protects writers who are persecuted. I founded PEN Ethiopia, and it was after participating in the PEN International congress in Quebec City in 2015 that my colleagues and I asked the Canadian government for protection.

I discovered that kindness is contagious in Canada. My new friends here have given me their time and tried genuinely to understand me and my challenges as a newcomer to this country. When Caroline’s neighbours heard about me, they bought me a winter jacket, thick socks and boots. I still remember their caring eyes and the heartfelt feeling as we shopped for the clothes.

I have been invited to Thanksgiving dinner, the neighbourhood pumpkin parade, Christmas dinner and hockey games. I’ve watched ski races and visited the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Vaughan, Ont.

One new friend typed up my resume in the Canadian style, distributed it in her workplace, found me a volunteer job, became my reference and helped me get a paid internship. When my family came to Canada as working residents in 2017, my workplace bought a bed for me and my wife, and bunk beds for my two sons. My co-workers came to my new flat and assembled the IKEA furniture. I was speechless.

But it’s not just me. Such a penchant for kindness must be hereditary, as Canadians have helped generations of refugees. This is, I presume, what distinguishes Canada from the rest of the world.

By now, I have spent four winters in Canada. I still haven’t made it to Winnipeg, but I wish one day to travel there and see how cold it really gets.

I’ve learned a lot more about Canadians, too. I see clearly what Caroline meant by “warm hearts.” The support and kindness I received from my sponsors and their friends has made a deep impact on me. I feel it’s my responsibility to pay it forward.

This Canadian’s first Toronto winter was colder than he could have imagined—but one snowfall made it all worthwhile.

© 2019, Solomon Hailemariam. From ”Kindness is Contagious in Canada”, The Globe and Mail (June 23, 2017), www.theglobeandmail.com

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada