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The Immigration Story of Leigh Himel's Mother (Estonian Refugee)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

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My mother left Tallinn, Estonia in the fall of 1943 with her parents and brother at the age of five. They escaped the fighting in World War II and the war with Russia by selling my entire grandfather’s trophies and medals collection that he had accumulated as a national-level high jumper.

Their first stop was Finland. At the time, the Finnish were signing a peace treaty with Russia to end the war, which subsequently gave all refugees less than 48 hours to leave the country. Needless to say, their time there was very short; they stayed for less than a year. From there, they escaped once again to a refugee camp, this time in Sweden, where they lived for five years. The log house that my grandfather built was just outside of Stockholm and exists to this day.

However, given the proximity to Russia, and their continued refugee status, my family was looking for a better life further abroad. They looked to go to the United States but due to the fears surrounding the Soviet Republic and post-war communism, they were unable to get their papers.

Canada was more welcoming. No longer refugees, but landed immigrants, my mother got onboard an ocean liner heading towards Halifax, Nova Scotia not knowing what to expect. She said the trip was amazing, and the boat had more food than she ever could have imagined.

She arrived in Halifax at Pier21 in May of 1950. The picture I have attached includes my grandparent’s long time friends the Peppres, my grandmother Miamo, my grandfather Georg and Uncle Michael. My mother was apparently sleeping in the train cabin.

There are many other accounts of her journeys. If you get my mom in the right mood, maybe even with a small glass of wine, she tells the greatest stories of these adventures. Her escape, the people she has met along the way, her struggle to find a home, her triumphs, and most importantly about the family she has been able to create in Canada. She will tell you how proud she is to be Canadian and especially how heart-warmed she is of her children, extended family, and grandchildren. Her pride, she will claim, comes from knowing that despite being born all over the world, (from Estonia to Greece, Australia, Cambodia and finally, right here in Canada), they have found a common home.