Foreign students and workers view island with different perspective
SYDNEY, N.S. — Louisa Esangbedo’s enthusiasm was evident as she recounted how she fell in love with Cape Breton.
The 22-year-old Nigerian arrived here five years ago to pursue her studies abroad.
And now, the Cape Breton University graduate wants to stay.
“I never believed I could be in such a place as wonderful as Cape Breton,” said Esangbedo, one of three island newcomers who shared their stories with delegates at a conference called The Unam’ki Immigration Summit (sponsored by the Cape Breton Partnership) that was held Thursday at CBU’s Verschuren Centre.
The amiable, animated and articulate Esangbedo had the auditorium crowd, comprised of students, immigrants, locals, academics, business leaders and government agency representatives, hanging on her every word as she gave a condensed version of her journey from a newly arrived foreign student to a happy and employed member of the local community.
“Everyone always asks me why I came here — If had a penny for every time I heard that question I’d be a millionaire now,” laughed Esangbedo, who after pounding the streets looking for a job secured employment with a local law firm.
“When I got here I was young and naïve and was surprised that everyone was so friendly — it took me a while to adapt to that because I came from a big city where nobody cares about you, but here people were inviting me to their house for Thanksgiving and I’m like ‘whoa’.”
Esangbedo graduated with a degree in public health. But like so many other young people in Cape Breton she was constantly questioned as to why she was still here.
“Everyone was asking me why I was still here because there are no jobs here, so I decided to think about what I wanted in my life — and, with the values I got from being here and from the people I met, I thought I didn’t really want to go away,” she said.
“I have grown here, I’m involved in the community, I love being here, I like myself on my own, there are lots of people here who have my back — I’m a member of like 10 different families in Cape Breton right now, I am in family pictures with all of them.”
In fact, Esangbedo gave her own family such a glowing review of Cape Breton that her brother followed her to CBU a year later. And then came her sister. It’s also possible that her parents may even emigrate.
“It’s so cool that my parents are happy with us being here,” she said.
“Those of us coming from the outside see the beauty in this place, we see the beauty in the people, we see how much people want to grow it and I really want to support that — I really try to be a great ambassador for this place because I got so much, and I want to give back more.”
Esangbedo was not the only newcomer at the conference to embrace Cape Breton.
Local businessman Sam Elgebeily is an Egyptian who arrived in Cape Breton two-and-a-half years ago. His brother, a local physician, has been in the area for 20 years. Elgebeily is an engineer by trade who entered Canada under the federal skilled worker program.
But when he arrived in Sydney he decided to open a restaurant with the undertaking being the Mezza Lebanese Kitchen.
“Sometimes I hear people say there’s nothing in Sydney, that I would be better going off somewhere else — I disagree, there’s lot of opportunity,” said Elgebeily, who is also studying to become a licensed immigration consultant.
“For me, and this may sound a little silly, but it’s true, when I came to Sydney there was no shawarma and that wasn’t a problem, it was an opportunity and that’s why we decided to start Mezza.”
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Elgebeily added that after being to many places around the world there’s no better place than Cape Breton, a sentiment shared by another Egyptian, Rowaida Magdy, who shared her story with the conference delegates.
“The whole island is breathtaking,” she said.
Magdy, who has been in Cape Breton since 2010, said her time as a student led her to want to stay. She earned undergraduate and masters degrees before working in various jobs across the island. Now she works for CBU as a liaison for a partnership the institution has in Cairo.
“I was a professional swimmer and I traveled around the world, I’ve been to many countries and many cities — I decided to stay here,” said Magdy.
With students from outside of Canada now comprising close to half of the CBU’s student enrolment, it now appears that more and more of them are opting to stay in the area.
And that’s good news for the local economy according to local business leaders who also attended the immigration summit.