Illustration by Dominic Bugatto

The Accidental Immigrant

I got stuck in Alberta after COVID hit. It took me four years to see my family again.

Folusho Oloyede

April 23, 2024

In 2019, I was living in Ibadan, Nigeria, and working as a high school teacher. My wife, Kenny, and I had a four-year-old son named Dotun, plus lots of relatives living nearby. One of my sisters, Jummy, had recently moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, with her husband, Niyi, who was doing his postdoc there. They just had a son, Tishe, and wanted me to meet him. So I flew from Nigeria to Canada in November of 2019 to see the three of them.

My trip was only supposed to last a few weeks. But Jummy liked having me around so much that she suggested I extend my stay until late March of 2020, so I could celebrate my birthday with them. I applied for extended leave from my job and rescheduled my flight home. To pass the time, I volunteered with a local food bank in Lethbridge. I also met up with the Nigerian community in the city and attended a few of their gatherings. I bonded a lot with Tishe, reading books and playing with him. 

When COVID hit and the borders in Canada and Nigeria closed, I tried my best to get any available flight out, but I was stuck in Alberta. I felt miserable and useless for the next few months, because I couldn’t be a father to my son and a partner to my wife during such a difficult time. It was mental torture. We did our best with Zoom despite the seven-hour time difference. Sometimes I spent three or four hours on video calls with them, and Dotun might just be falling asleep or waking up, but I still wanted to see those little moments. My son couldn’t understand why I didn’t come back home. He would say, “You told me you’d be gone for a couple of weeks!” I could tell he was upset with me.

Jummy and Niyi saw I wasn’t myself. They saw me struggling. Since I wasn’t earning an income anymore, they sent some money back home every month to support my wife, and Niyi’s brother suggested I sign up for a three-month online early childhood education course, from May to July. I figured it was a good way to pass the time meaningfully, since I couldn’t do anything else. I also read a lot of books—probably 50 or 60 in those first few months—played with my nephew and went for long walks with the family. Sometimes we’d drive to different parts of Alberta, like Waterton, to hike and explore. 

In June of 2020, the government introduced a policy that allowed people stuck in Canada on visitor’s permits, like myself, to apply for closed work permits without having to leave the country. It felt like things were finally turning around, but I’d need an employer to sponsor my visa. I looked online for a few months and eventually found a job as a live-in caregiver for a Nigerian family living in Fort McMurray. They had two sons, aged two and seven, and I was to help the older son with online school and take care of the younger son too.

I moved to Fort McMurray in January the following year. The family welcomed me with open arms. Working for them made me think about what life would be like if my family moved here. In Nigeria, rich people and politicians are almost untouchable—they could use their power to get away with anything. I liked that there was accountability in Canada, especially for politicians, where people question you if they suspect you’re doing something wrong. I also liked how everyone here has equal access to good roads, health care, playgrounds and public schooling, regardless of their economic standing. I thought: this is the kind of place I want to live in. It would be a great place to raise a family. I always wanted just one child, but being in Canada made me think I’d like to have another. I started talking with Kenny about the idea of her and Dotun immigrating to Canada. She was hesitant at first since it would be a big change, but she soon saw how it would benefit our family and create a better future for us.

In the fall that year, Niyi got a job at the Okanagan campus of UBC, so he, Jummy and Tishe all moved there. I didn’t like the idea of being in Alberta alone and my sister was worried about me too. She suggested I look for a job near them, in Vernon and, a few days later, sent me a link to a job posting at a childcare centre in town called Maven Lane. I applied, did an interview and got an offer within 24 hours. I immediately packed up and moved to Vernon, arriving less than a week after my sister’s family. I stayed in a spare bedroom in their new house. 

My first contact at Maven Lane, Kyla MaCaulay, knew about my visa situation. Since I had a closed work permit, I’d need my employer to sponsor my visa, which they were happy to do. Kyla connected with a friend who was a local coordinator for Vernon’s Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot Project, or RNIP, a new program designed to bring immigrants to smaller communities by giving them a faster route to permanent residency. Through this pathway, I could sponsor my wife and son under my PR application too. Finally, I thought, we would be reunited.

The RNIP issues immigration nominations based on the community’s needs. A committee in Vernon assesses prospective candidates for those who would be the best fit, considering factors like our professions and ties to the community. It helped that my sister was living in Vernon too. Initially, they turned down my application because I was too new to the city—they wanted me to live there for at least six months. So I waited. Then, in March of 2022, I got the community nomination through the RNIP and could start working at Maven Lane. I could apply for permanent residency too, for myself and my family, which I got by early December that year. I was overjoyed that my family could finally be reunited. 

Kenny and Dotun arrived on December 11, just a few days after their paperwork went through. Seeing my wife and son after four years was surreal. It was a moment I had played over in my mind so many times over the years. I ran over and lifted Kenny up and gave her a long kiss. Then I gave Dotun a hug and lifted him up too—I realized how much bigger and heavier he had grown. He said, “Dad, you didn’t tell me you were going to be gone for so long!” We all stood together in a hug and cried for a couple of minutes before we headed to the car. I felt like I had a bounce to my step after they landed. I was just so happy. 

A week after they arrived, we moved out of my sister’s house and rented an apartment five minutes away. Dotun is a social animal. He’s now in Grade 3, and he made friends quickly at school. Kenny took a bit longer to adjust to a new home and culture, but it helped to have Jummy nearby. The two of them became good friends and often went for walks and coffee together. By the end of February of 2023, Kenny got a job as a sales representative at a financial company. She’s become close with her coworkers, and our families spend a lot of time going on picnics together and visiting the lakes around the Okanagan.

Were it not for COVID, I would have probably flown home to Nigeria in 2020 and I’d still be living there with my extended family. Being separated from my son and wife for so long was extremely challenging. But I’m grateful that it paved the way for us all to be together in Canada now. Our family is growing too—in March this year, Kenny gave birth to a little girl, Tiwa. Everything I have now makes the sacrifices feel worthwhile.

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