Nigora Yulyakshieva: From political refugee to Regina City Hall
"I've always met people with big hearts and they believe in me and they support me."by Jennifer Ackerman
In a politically tense post-Soviet Uzbekistan, there lived a family of four.
Settled in the city of Samarkand, they lived a relatively quiet and politically uninvolved life under Islam Karimov, a communist dictator who had ruled the country since its independence in 1991.
Nigora Yulyakshieva was approaching her 20th year as a civil engineer and her husband Bahodir Youlyahshiev worked as the general manger of city transit. Together they had two children, a 10-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son.
A happy, engaged student growing up who loved helping out her parents and her grandparents, Nigora never imagined she would leave her home country.
All that changed one day in the late ’90s.
“My husband was in jail and I didn’t know for three days,” recalled Nigora. “I couldn’t get information from anybody.”
In tears, she finally managed to find out from her neighbour, who worked for the police, that he had been arrested.
“I will tell you where he is,” he told her. “Just don’t tell (anyone) that I shared that with you.”
Despite having no involvement in politics himself, Bahodir’s father had ties to the political party that opposed the ruling dictatorship after the Soviet Union fell. It landed Bahodir in jail for four days.
“When my husband was in jail, there’s lots of people (that) didn’t want to help me that I thought … would help,” said Nigora. “And I understand because they have families.”
“Everybody was scared.”
Eventually released, they decided it was safer for him in Turkey. Three months later, Nigora and the kids joined Bahodir in hopes of returning home to Samarkand once things calmed down.
But that never happened. After about seven months in Turkey, the family was accepted into Canada as political refugees, with help from the United Nations.
“We came without anything,” said Nigora. “Believe it or not, it was one suitcase for four people.”
The only sentimental thing they brought with them to Canada was, at the urging of her father, the Uzbek pot the family used for cooking.
“He just put it in the bag and I said, ‘No dad I’m not taking (it),’ ” recalled Nigora of when she and the kids left for Turkey, still under the impression they would return home one day.
Maybe he knew they never would, she muses now.
“This is your home, something from your home, it will keep you always,” he insisted, giving the pot to his grandson. “You’re taking this to your last destination.”
Once they knew they were going to Canada, instead of back home to Samarkand, Nigora’s parents visited them in Turkey.
It would end up being the last time Nigora ever saw her father, who died three years later.
It’s a question she’s often asked, Nigora says with a laugh.
The answer is simple. Before they came to Canada, her husband’s siblings had settled in Moose Jaw. Wanting to be close to them, but in a bigger city, Nigora and her husband chose the Queen City.
They arrived in June 1999, less than a year after relocating to Turkey. Considering how many years some refugees have to wait before getting to their final destination, Nigora considers herself and her family to be very lucky.
They were met at the airport by an interpreter who had been arranged by the Regina Open Door Society (RODS), a non-profit that provides settlement and integration services to refugees and immigrants.
“I wouldn’t go anywhere without her because we didn’t know how to speak (English),” recalled Nigora, who was seven months pregnant at the time.
She remembers going shopping in the early days of their arrival and having to open containers of sour cream to figure out what exactly they were buying. She paid for everything she opened, she made sure to mention.
“I couldn’t imagine what I will face. So it was totally closed book for me to come to here,” she said. “Every day surprises.”
The family was set up in a reception home where they stayed for about four days while RODS helped them buy furniture and find a permanent place to rent.
The kids started school that August and Nigora and her husband started taking English lessons through RODS. Being in school, she said the kids learned English much faster and were a big help as their parents continued to gain a grasp of the language.
Next on the list was finding a job, which was complicated by the fact that Nigora’s engineering degree was not recognized in Canada. But that didn’t matter to her at the start.
“We were not looking to find engineering jobs. Me and my husband said if we will find job that will pay $10 for us per hour and we can build a life — that’s (the) mindset we came,” she said. “The frustration was I couldn’t find a job.”
Nigora couldn’t get interviews, even for a cleaning job. People she’d met since arriving in Canada told her that of course she couldn’t. An overqualified candidate, employers didn’t want to hire someone they knew wouldn’t be sticking around.
Eventually, after her husband worked a stint at a local Mediterranean bistro, both of them were hired in Craven at a local hotel and restaurant.
“Both of us hope was to get a job and to live in peace and support the kids and be safe,” she said.
But life had different plans for Nigora in Regina. Eventually, she met someone at RODS who worked for the Ministry of Highways, and soon after she was set up with a three-month work placement.
There she met a woman who guided her through the lengthy and involved process of getting her Uzbekistan engineering degree recognized in Canada.
“I’m fortunate because in my journey, I’ve always met people with big hearts and they believe in me and they support me,” said Nigora.
Her career as an engineer in Canada took off from there. After two years, a technical interview, engineering exam, a report that outlined her 20 years of experience in Samarkand and translated copies of designs and reports from back home (sent to her by friends still in Uzbekistan), she was officially recognized as a professional engineer in Canada.
“It was very exciting,” she recalls with a smile.
She got a temporary job with the City of Regina as a senior engineer in 2004 and then worked for EPCOR in Edmonton from 2005 to 2007 before returning to Regina, where she’s worked as the city’s manager of roadway preservation since 2008.
Despite a welcoming community and many helping hands, it hasn’t always been a smooth process, says Nigora. Settling in a new country where you don’t speak the language, can’t get a job and have to care for three children (including a newborn) was challenging.
“There will be failures. From the failures you have to learn what you can … and it’s the opportunity for you to move forward,” she said. “Now I look back I don’t regret nothing that happened.”
“Home is where you make your bread”
In 2006, Nigora’s mother came to Canada for six months to spend time with the family.
They were living in Edmonton at the time, but some of Nigora’s friends from Regina made the trip to meet her — the last chance, it turned out, that they would have to do so.
Two months after returning to Samarkand, Nigora’s mother died.
“At least … she came, she saw how I was living. She was so amazed. She cannot believe how we live here,” said Nigora. “She was very happy.”
When asked if she ever dreams about going back to Samarkand, Nigora shows no signs of turning her back on the life she’s built in Canada, but she acknowledges the sacrifices she made by leaving.
She wasn’t able to attend either of her parents’ funerals and her kids had to grow up without their grandparents and extended family around them.
“My kids, they’re happy now. They’re Canadians, but the one part I’m missing always is the family,” she said. “They’ve grown up without grandpa, aunties, and the cousins so of course you always wish they’d grown up together with the family and the culture.”
But the community she found in Regina embraced her, becoming a sort of second family. When her third child was born, despite the language barrier, their RODS host family spent five hours in the hospital with her and when they got word her father had died, new friends made a point of doing all the traditional things that would be done for a mourner in Uzbekistan.
“Home is where you earn your bread. I feel myself more I belong here now than anywhere else,” said Nigora. “I’m very thankful for this community and I’m trying now to pay back as much I could.”
To help ease the distance from her family abroad, they have traveled to meet up with Nigora’s siblings in Turkey every year since 2013.
“I learned the hard way not to say ‘if’ or ‘why’ because this is what it is and I’m glad that they’re here,” Nigora said of her children. “First of all they’re safe and they have lots of opportunities like us.”
In Grade 7, Nigora’s geography class learned about Niagara Falls.
“In front of class … I say one day I will be there and everybody was laughing at me,” she said. “At that time it wasn’t even a dream for anybody. Nobody even think that they can go to Canada.”
In 2013, she took her granddaughter with her on her trip to Turkey. On the way, 36 years after her Grade 7 self confidently proclaimed it, they visited Niagara Falls.
“You have to dream big,” she told her granddaughter. “We never know where life will take us.”