Interviewing Rita is like getting a lesson in the history of Eastern Europe from the time of some of the best James Bond stories. She grew up behind the iron curtain where information about the world was controlled, poverty was widespread and opportunities for a good life were few and far between. As she explains it, the rules were different in her old world. When she eventually made it to Canada, she thought she had finally arrived to the land of joy and opportunity. She had, but as with many such stories there is a sad, unexpected twist.
From a very young age Rita showed signs of strength and self-determination. To begin with she decided to go to university and to study computing science, something which is uncommon for women even today in North America let alone in an Eastern European country a few decades ago. While in university she became pregnant but unfortunately for her, the father of the child had no desire to get married nor did he contribute any money for the child’s care. Her family, who ought to have been a source of great support, instead shunned her because she was now an unwed mother, a shameful state in that country at that time. Rita was alone with her child to complete her university degree and to earn money as best she could. It was such a stressful time that to this day Rita cannot recall when she graduated. It’s all a blur.
After a couple of years of working and living on her own Rita was desperate to get married. Life as an unwed mother was very difficult in that society and it became clear that to have any hope of getting ahead she needed a husband.
She met her husband-to-be Michael on an out-of-town business trip. For him it was love at first sight and he proposed three days later. For her however he was the very antithesis of the man she thought she’d marry: he had dropped out of high school and was uneducated, he was bald and he didn’t have a great job. At first she took no notice of him but eventually she realized that he was a genuine soul and had a very good heart. So she said yes.
A respectable woman
Rita was now in a decent position personally. Michael was so kind and warm that she eventually grew to love him, and given that she was now a “respectable woman” her family once again acknowledged her existence. She had a second daughter and settled into a reasonably contented home life.
Professionally however she was stuck. In order to marry Michael she had to move to his village in Ukraine, a place with a population of roughly 2,000 people. It was a stark contrast to her previous urban existence and it also provided a real challenge for her: what on earth would she do for a job? She was a computer programmer who now found herself in a small, rural village.
She did the only thing she knew how to do: She computerized the village and in the process she developed a very successful business that was highly regarded by the locals. That was fine for a few years but eventually she yearned for more. In the village everyone was poor, the shops were empty. Everywhere she looked she saw nothing but a bleak future for herself and her daughters. Two generations of women in her family had waited for a better life that never came, and now Rita saw herself following the same path.
Her boredom and dissatisfaction eventually led her to consider emigrating, but where could she go? There was little information available on other countries behind the iron curtain which proved a considerable challenge to doing any kind of research. At the time, only three countries to her knowledge were accepting immigrants: Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The first two were too far away for her and they also contained far too many of something she dreaded: Bugs. She chose Canada for its twin virtues of being closer and having fewer bugs. (Editorial comment: Rita hasn’t spent much time in the woods in Canada in June!)
Without telling anyone, she applied and was accepted for a visa to Canada. For the next two years Rita worked very hard and managed to raise the money that she needed to emigrate. During that time her husband did not believe that she would go through with it. When she eventually raised the needed capital they had a very frank conversation that resulted in an ultimatum: He could stay if he chose to but she was taking the girls to Canada. It was only then that he fully understood the extent of her resolve. The only thing they needed now was money for the plane tickets.
The local “KGB”
Unfortunately, Michael had not heeded Rita’s advice to be discreet about their plans and the local “KGB” found out that they were planning to leave. They started following Michael and Rita. To this day Rita still has no idea why they were upset that two of their residents were immigrating to Canada. It became obvious that trouble was brewing when one of the officials called Rita in for questioning and made it clear that Michael would be jailed, using a “confession” containing Rita’s forged signature, if they attempted to leave.
Rita rushed home, packed two hand bags and left with her husband and her daughters, abandoning their house. They stayed with relatives in another town until the police showed up at their door. The relatives lied to the police while the family hid under a bed upstairs.
As soon as the police left, they fled to a hotel near the airport in Kiev where they hid while waiting for the plane tickets to arrive. They did not leave the room except to get food once a day. The wait was agonizing: Would the police find them? Would the police think to notify the airport? Would they be stopped before boarding the plane? Eventually the tickets arrived and they got on the plane without difficulty but the stress of being chased like criminals haunted Rita for years.
New world, new problems
At long last, Rita was back in a large city in a country that offered countless opportunities. It was a dream come true and she worked hard to integrate as quickly as possible. She updated her skills, took more English classes and soon got a good job as a computer programmer.
Michael did not fare well. Back in Ukraine, they had made a good team in their business but she had been the driving force for the enterprise. In Canada he was rudderless. Despite daily English lessons he still couldn’t speak a word of the language eighteen months later and was therefore unemployable. His whole world revolved around waiting for Rita and his daughters to come home. He had made a few friends in the ex-pat community but they only served to reinforce his sense of alienation. Rita was expanding her world and he was regressing in his.
After a couple of years of watching Michael make no progress despite her repeated attempts to help, Rita’s opinion of him faded and resentment grew. She eventually made the difficult decision to leave him, a choice which shocked and angered Michael. He argued with her, trying desperately to get her to change her mind. When it was clear that she was determined, something snapped in him. He came into her bedroom while she was sleeping, jumped on the bed and began to strangle her saying that she belonged to him and that if he couldn’t have her, no one else would. Despite their size difference, Rita managed to get him off her long enough to cry out and talk to him. He changed his mind: instead of strangling her he raped her.
Rita was an emotional mess with no one to turn to. After days of crying at work she finally confided to a colleague who immediately urged Rita to call the police. Charges were pressed and Michael was hauled off to jail. Then guilt set in.
Rita felt so bad about the fact that Michael was in jail that she bailed him out. He resumed his behaviour telling Rita “You’re not leaving me. I’ll follow you wherever you go.” At this point Rita knew that she needed to escape and thankfully, thanks to her boss, she was relocated to another city. Michael only discovered that she was leaving when the moving van arrived at their house. Under the watchful protection of the workers, Rita left with her girls.
An unfortunate conclusion
For the third time, Rita began rebuilding her life from scratch in a new home. Everything was going brilliantly until she began to have feelings of guilt about the fact that the girls never saw their father. Why should they be deprived of their father? After all, he was fundamentally a good man who had snapped under extreme duress; at his core he was a good guy. She called him and offered him the opportunity to visit the girls, reiterating however that they would never again be together. This was being done for the sake of the girls. Michael agreed and a meeting was arranged.
Once Michael arrived at Rita’s house, he refused to leave. Rita called the police and they escorted Michael out of her house. One week later, there was a knock on her door at 1 am. It was the police. They told her that Michael had committed suicide.
In that moment, Rita’s emotional world collapsed. She had been through so much already and now she felt partly responsible for her husband’s death. More than a decade later, she is still overcome with emotion as she recounts her story. It doesn’t help that all of her friends and family from “back home” blamed her for leaving, as did the ex-pats whom she had befriended. Only her Canadian friends were understanding of her need to leave Michael. Rita’s experience has clearly left her scarred at a visceral level.
When I asked her if she would have done anything differently had she known what would happen, she insists that she would not have believed it. This, incidentally, is common to the majority of the women whom I have interviewed: the lack of belief that anything of the sort could happen to them.
Since Rita was the bread-winner for the family, she is not bereft as a result of Michael’s death. That said, she does point out that she did not understand the concept of insurance. There was no such thing in her country therefore when it was presented as an option here she simply filled out “$10,000” when asked how much insurance she wanted for Michael. Had she understood it better, she would have significantly increased her coverage and left herself and her daughters in much better financial shape.
Her recommendations below apply to all women, not just immigrants:
1. Set up a network of friends outside your cultural community. Otherwise you may be isolated when you go against the grain of the community’s norms.
2. Don’t let pride prevent you from reaching out for help. Pride helped Rita become strong and independent, but it also hurt her at key moments.
3. Get the support you need. Ask your friends and colleagues for recommendations and reach out for support. There is no need to try to cope and/or adapt alone.
My next blog post, which will be up in a few days, will be my story. My husband Malcolm died in 1998 and to date I have never shared the full story. This will be a first for me, and it comes as a result of a conversation I had with my good friend Bona.
Please share this blog with all the remarkable women in your life.