Raised in Sri Lanka, an island country just off the southeast coast of India in the Bay of Bengal, Jeseema John-Nixon was 18 years old when she first looked outside her front door and thought of a different life other than in the traditional Muslim way she had been brought up.
While Canada wasn’t her first focal point, Prince Rupert has been her home for the past 16 years and permits the freedom where she can choose a personal balance between the traditional Islamic ways of her youth and the Christian modernism of her Canadian life.
Jeseema moved to Prince Rupert in 2006, three years after getting married to a man of her own choice, balking the cultural values of the arranged marriage her mother had already planned for her to a cousin.
Jeseema said it was a ‘love match’ when she met her husband. He was living in Toronto and she was working in Bahrain when the couple met online. She didn’t tell her family for some time about the marriage and when she did it caused strife for more reasons than stepping out of the bounds of arrangement. There were cultural differences, as her new husband came from the opposite side of the Sri Lankan civil war lines, as well, he was Christian and different religion. Jesseema converted faiths to marry him.
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Jeseema said as children her brother, sister, and she moved to different homes a lot, being raised by different relatives at different times. She didn’t know her own mother until she was ten years old. Her mother lived and worked in Saudi Arabia sending money back to support the family. Money, Jeseema said that was not often seen by the family. The children grew up poor.
“I don’t remember how much we moved, but I do remember when I was ten years old one day I woke up there is a lady sitting there all dressed up. Somebody said this is your mom. She gave me a doll. I remember after one month she disappeared again.”
She didn’t see her mother after that until she was 14, which caused issues when Jeseema reached puberty. In the traditionally modest culture, she explained that adolescence and body changes were never discussed or taught. It was just not permitted, even among women.
So, at that time living with her dad and uncle in a male-dominated household she had no one else to tell when she first started menstruating and didn’t know what it was.
“We have the tradition that we are supposed to be secluded for seven days for our first time, stay covered, not touch anything, not see any men,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do because you have to eat very healthy food and have it brought to you by the household mother. We had no mom, so my dad had to bring me food.”
She said they were so poor her dad made only $2.00 a day, they couldn’t afford the hygiene supplies, and despite it being the 1980s she had to rip up old clothes to use.
With no women in the home, after the seventh day, her dad called an aunt who lived in the city where Jeseema was sent to live.
“I could never see my sister as she lived somewhere else. There were no phones at that time in the 80s and 90s. So I never saw my sister. My brother was sent to boarding school,” she said. Her own schooling and education were sporadic with attending one year but not the next and so on.
“I was going to turn 18. I was just a maid in my aunty’s house. They had four daughters, but all I did was cook and clean,” she said. Her days started at 5 a.m. and she would work all day and got to bed after 10 p.m.
“My mom was sending money from Saudi Arabia. She thought I was going to school, but I never was allowed to go to school after grade six.”
When Jeseema turned 18 she started to question why she was there and what she was doing. Her aspirations grew to wanting to own a house. She wondered why she couldn’t be like her own mother and leave to work elsewhere. With the help of a friend, she obtained a passport and a visa for travel to Bahrain. She said she was “released” from her uncle’s house. She obtained a job as a health care assistant to a woman who was 101 years old in Saudi Arabia.
The house was like a palace to young Jeseema when she arrived. She never saw the face of the lady she looked after because she was so staid in the culture she kept herself covered, and did not even watch TV due to religious beliefs.
She later went to work for a Russian lady looking after her two boys. Her employer taught her how to use the internet, and that’s when she met her husband. After a couple of years of speaking to him online, they both flew to his home in Sri Lanka and got married. The young bride lived with her mother-in-law for three years after her husband returned to Canada to work on Jeseema’s immigration.
Initially, she said, she had hard a time when first arriving in Prince Rupert. Having no family or friends in Canada, and her husband working all day, she was alone a lot of the time. Culture shock coming from a Sri Lankan big city to Northern British Columbia, set in.
“I came here in the night and it is pouring rain. The next day morning I look from the window — no people. All I see is a forest. I feel like this is a forest. Only trees and no people, no vehicles,” she said. For the first month, she stayed inside with her three-year-old daughter.
The young family didn’t have a car so her trips out into the community were few and only with her husband. After the first month, she’d had enough of being housebound and asked her husband to purchase a stroller. Once she had the stroller for her daughter she would venture out each day. She would walk just ten houses at a time because she didn’t know the streets. Each day she would increase the walk by another ten houses.
After a few months in Prince Rupert Jeseema experienced her first Seafest where she met someone who told her about an English class. She soon started English classes for two hours a day and was taught how to catch the bus.
“So that’s when slowly I started finding friends, learning about things like what’s going on in Prince Rupert, what are the rules in Canada, how is Canada. Then I found suddenly a lot of help at the college,” she said. She found out that there was financial assistance for courses and some she didn’t have to pay for at all, as well as being provided bus tickets. Within six months she “got it” she said, and her thirst for education began to be quenched.
Not knowing how to cook when she first got married and after she became pregnant with her second child, Jeseema spent a lot of time at the pregnancy outreach centre. She learned many things like cooking and Canadian food, pregnancy issues, how to care for children, and how in Canada women have rights.
“I learn a lot of things. I meet a lot of women … I learned where you go for help. I learned there are women’s rights. I learned how women are strong,” she said. “Slowly, I learned. Then I got more strong.”
By the time she had a third baby, she realized a change was happening inside herself. She was immersing herself in the Canadian culture of female independence.
“I realized I’ve been a very traditional Sri Lankan wife for my husband. Once I found this is what I can be — that you don’t have to be a very traditional wife. I learned I can do anything and everything here because I live in Canada. I figured it out and I could learn how much I want.”
When her youngest child reached kindergarten Jeseema decided it was time for her to learn how to drive. Initially, her husband was cautious due to cultural beliefs and that her English skills may not be adequate.
“Then secretly I studied. I studied, studied, studied. I didn’t tell him. I went and I passed my knowledge test for driving,” she said. When she brought home her driver’s licence, he said he couldn’t teach her because he didn’t have enough patience. So, Jeseema signed up and took driving lessons. She passed her road the first time.
“I got my driving licence and then I got a job at Tim Hortons. I just wanted to drive.”
“You can do things in Canada. You can work. You can study. You can take care of a family and you can do a lot of things,” she said comparing her life now to what it would have been in Sri Lanka where husbands can legally beat their wives in the streets.
“In Sri Lanka, once you are married, only if you are very, very, rich can you maybe think about study. But, in the middle class, you can never think about leaving the house. You have to take care of the husband, cooking, cleaning, not go to work. You sacrifice everything the day you get married. Here in Canada, you can still do everything.”
“Canada is the land of opportunity. And there’s a lot of freedom, especially human rights and rights for women,” she said.
Having recently passed her Canadian citizenship test, again which she studied in secret, she said Canada has given her the right to balance being a mother, becoming educated, learning new things, be employed, be an Annunciation church volunteer, as well as to have the choice to honour her own cultural heritage and be a traditional, but Canadian wife.
K-J Millar | Journalist
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