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It sounds so strange to say: I came to Vancouver because I thought I was going to die. Because while I survived 9/11 in New York City, in the years that followed I developed severe respiratory problems from my prolonged exposure to the toxic chemicals I inhaled while trapped underground for hours during the attack. Not only could my American doctors not help me, I lost my insurance and any chance of enrolling in other programs because of my condition. And all the while I was reading about other cases in the area around the World Trade Center, both rescue workers and civilians, getting sick. Then they starting dying.
So. It’s a funny thing, that. You get really selfish and specific about your needs when you think, as a thirty year old, that you might not have long left on this earth. I wanted to leave New York and go somewhere really beautiful and quiet. I picked this place because my ex boyfriend’s twin brother said this city was extraordinary, and he was the kind of person whose word I took seriously. And also, I wanted to fulfill an old dream of getting an M.F.A. degree. But most of all, I came because I thought the Canadian health care system might be able to help me.
It wasn’t as easy as waking up in a beautiful city and starting a new life. I began every day coughing and choking, wondering if I was wasting precious time away from my family. I only knew one person in the area- I was as alone as anyone can be.
But this is the incredible part about Vancouver. There are so many people who are also not from here, with their own unique stories. My first week I was invited to dinner by a girl who came all the way from Pakistan to study architecture at UBC. This perhaps sounds like a small thing, but a home cooked meal meant a lot then. And she was just the beginning- as the days went on, I gained a crowd of kind people who came here by way of Russia, New Zealand, India, China, Germany, Iran, and other places in Canada.
It was almost overwhelming, the friendliness and immediate warmth of all of these people. Even the Indian ladies who worked at my residence would hang elaborately hand-crafted meals in plastic bags on my door. They worried about how thin and sick looking I was, and were convinced that their cooking would cure me. So thus I gained two “aunties” who were checking up on me regularly. Suddenly I was doing things like celebrating Chinese New Year, Nowruz, and Diwali with my classmates. Because of this-little by little-I felt at home, which was the first miracle.
The second miracle is that the doctors here fixed me. I could barely run from one end of Kits Beach to the other when I first landed without my lungs aching, but five years after I arrived and had treatment, I ran the Sun Run. It was not an immediate magic cure- there were many trips to the emergency room in between, and more doctor’s visits, consultations, and false leads than I can even count. But the point is, I’m better. Not 100% better, maybe, ever- but it’s enough. And I am no longer getting worse.
I think a lot about these choices that we make that change our lives-especially about something so seemingly simple as a decision of what city to live in. I think about how I left my home and family in America for Vancouver. I think about how I gambled with my health, naively based on hope, and how I won. I think about the 100+ people like me who stayed in the USA, finding no cure, and died.
You’d asked about the “why”, and I guess in a roundabout way I’m telling you not just why I came to Vancouver, but why I stayed once I got better. Yes, there are beautiful beaches and mountains and so on. But it’s the people, most of all, that give that feeling of belonging to a city even though I wasn’t born here. It’s a place that introduced me to people that saved my life, educated me, and gave me an amazing group of friends. It feels almost too personal to share, because it is so big, for me, and means so much. But I wanted you to know- to know why this city is so important to one person.
It’s because I’m still here.