Zrinka Seles-Vranjes shares a touching story of her first Canadian winter. Near Christmas, she was pregnant and alone, as her husband was working at sea. An elderly neighbour in her apartment building arrived with a plate of cookies and a small needlework white angel. “I was speechless. I was stunned. Thank you, thank you, I kept saying. She said thank you for choosing Canada.” But refugees seldom have a choice.
The long and painful conflict in the former Yugoslavia led Zrinka, from Croatia, and her Bosnian-born husband to Halifax in 1996. “You just want to leave; you just want order in your life somehow. That’s the best that I can describe it.” He left for Germany, she followed and they made their way to Canada.
They were greeted with comforting words. “Our cab driver said, don’t worry. People came here 300 to 400 years ago and they survived. You will survive.” He took them to a hotel on Chocolate Lake where they were welcomed by representatives from the immigration department.
“Our first moments here were phenomenal,” she says. “I felt like I was in a movie; it was so peaceful and quiet. People were wonderful, so kind. We walked and walked and wondered where the city was. Twice people stopped and asked if we needed a hand. We weren’t used to that.”
With degrees in teaching and pedagogy, Zrinka had been a high school language teacher. She also had a “phenomenal job” as director of cultural activities, organizing theatre and dance events. Her husband was a seaman, a job he continues as captain of a private container ship.
Zrinka went to language school for three months but didn’t return to the workforce until her daughter, Tara, was a year old. “In the beginning here I didn’t know about stores, didn’t know where to find familiar things. I still remember everything tasted different – chocolate not so sweet, the milk didn’t have the same flavour.”
Tara speaks Croatian and Serbian and has strong ties to her parents’ homeland, where she has visited several times. “I like the food and the lifestyle; when we go back there, everyone does stuff more like what we do.” This was a revelation to Zrinka. “She felt alone here and suddenly was overwhelmed with discovery that she had an extended family. How happy she was and I didn’t realize she was missing that.”
The family’s settlement was smooth. “We were university educated and we came from a society that was different, but not so different. It was still Europe, so for us we have culture shock but not as much as for other people.”
Zrinka and Tara love to ride horses and Zrinka is on the board of directors of the Bengal Lancers. Her husband is a member of the Metro Karate Club. Zrinka also helped a Palestinian family settle here as part of a private sponsorship group called Neighbours for Refugees. Her day job is Program Assistant for Health Interpretation Services at ISANS – giving back to a community that has given her so much.