The last memory I have of my homeland is sitting in an airplane, naively excited about the adventure my family was about to have. Five-year-old me looked down at the ocean that encircled my small island and hoped wherever we were going was near the water. But as my mother watched the waves of the ocean, she prayed each tide would close the distance between our family, now split in two.
Haiti was the only home we’d ever known, but my family’s political activism, particularly my father’s, made us targets within our community. Then, one of the young girls in our neighbourhood was assaulted by rival political groups. My mother was heartbroken for the girl, and terrified at the possibility that me or my two sisters could be next. From the corners of her heart, she knew it was time for us to leave.
I vividly remember the last day my family was all together in Haiti. We had applied for documentation so we could immigrate to the U.S., but the papers for my sister, B., hadn’t come in yet—so when my mother, brother, other sister and I boarded the plane, B. and my father had to stay behind. My mother was six months pregnant, and, as I watched her absentmindedly rub her stomach, I remember thinking that she looked so full of pain. She buried my sister’s head into the crook of her arms and wiped the tears from B.’s face, repeatedly reminding her that we were not leaving by choice and would call every day. Then, my mother hugged my dad in the way old Caribbean couples do: so conservative in touch but yet so abundant in love. She prayed with my entire family one last time and reminded us that our reunion would not be a matter of if but when.
Dividing our family was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to go through, and I’ve recently come to realize that while leaving was difficult for me, it must have felt nearly impossible for my mother. As I grew up, this part of our family history was quietly off limits—something we had all experienced, but never discussed—but 19 years later, I asked my mother what she went through. What she told me has given my memories an entirely new dimension.
“When we were on the plane, I cried till I didn’t have water left in my body. I felt so much guilt leaving your sister in Haiti. Before even boarding the plane I was already missing her and your father,” my mother told me recently. “When she finally came to Florida, I don’t think I stopped hugging her for hours.”
Currently, Western countries are facing a migrant crisis. Thousands of people are crossing borders, walls and water by any means necessary in the hopes of a future. In Canada alone, just under 50,000 asylum seekers crossed the American/Canadian border last year and that number is only expected to climb. While our Prime Minister has publicly supported refugees, tweeting in 2017, “to those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you,” experts have long argued Canadian policies don’t really create safe havens for refugees, asylum seekers, migrants or temporary foreign workers.
“Canadian policies are complicit in ensuring separation of migrant mothers from their children,” says Ethel Tungohan, a York University professor researching migrant labour and immigration. “Policies such as the caregiver program have made it harder for mothers to reunite with their families. Imagine working and living in Canada for years and only doing so with the promise you’ll be reunited with your family, and then finding out you can’t actually [do so].”
As those thousands of people leave their motherlands, I can’t help but think about all the mothers who are being separated from their families and the only lives they’ve known. My mother still dreams vividly of her homeland. She dreams of the palm trees, the sun, the environment, but more than anything, she misses her siblings—some of whom have died since she left. She never got chance to say goodbye.
The six months my family was separated forever shaped my mother’s life. She longed for my father’s help with the difficulties of her pregnancy, and later when she experienced postpartum depression, which was made even harder by the fact that she was in a new and unknown environment and without a support system. And she yearned for my sister B. After we had all gone to sleep, she cried incessantly in the silence of the night. “It felt like eternity. We talked on the phone every day, but it still wasn’t enough. Every minute felt like days apart. Months felt like years,” she recently told me. “I felt like pieces of me were scattered between Haiti with my daughter and husband and in Florida where I was.”
But she also spent years harbouring guilt and shame for missing time away from my sister. And when we were finally reunited in Miami, Florida, she felt like she had to make up for lost time, making sure she wasn’t missing anymore milestones and moments. “I don’t think I could ever do it again. If I could go back or even if the circumstances somehow were to happen again, I can never imagine leaving your sister. Not for one month, not for a week,” my mother explains as she holds back tears.
My family is one of the lucky ones—we were only separated for six months. But for so many others, years and lifespans pass before they are able to see their loved ones. Migration, while it provides the opportunity for a better life, also inherently means that there is a loss. I think of my grandmother who passed without meeting my younger American-born sisters. I think of my mother who spent 15 years unable to visit her homeland. I think of mothers dreaming of the day their families can be all together in one room. This Mother’s Day is for them.