Meet Helga*, a photographer and graphic designer who is both relentlessly positive and passionate about Ottawa. Helga immigrated to Canada from Columbia in search of adventure and snow; ten years later she’s still just as excited about living here as the day she arrived.
I am a photographer, graphic designer, and communications professional with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. Overall, I consider myself an artist. I’m from South America; I lived there until I finished university. In my late teens and early 20s life got exciting and there were definitely some adventures. That’s what that time of your life is all about, right? Anyway, a big adventure was about to take place for me, and that’s when I decided to move to Ottawa.
My family is from Colombia. There are ten million people living in Bogotá and that felt very overwhelming to me. After my dad retired, I couldn’t wait to actually live on my own – on my own terms, able to do whatever I wanted. Just before I graduated from university, I told my dad, “Listen, I want to go somewhere exciting and start a new life, have an adventure – but I need your help.” And he agreed! So I started this hunt for the perfect place. I immediately thought I would move to a Nordic country.
What was the draw to Nordic countries?
It was the exact opposite of what I had grown up with – tropical sandy beaches, palm trees and warm weather. I wanted snow, and to experience winter blizzards. I wanted winter gear, a winter sleeping bag, to build an igloo – all of the clichés! Of course I had really romanticized the idea. I had no idea what was fiction and what was fact.
There is a lot of documentation, a lot of forms and stuff to do before you can even dream about immigrating to Canada. The whole process took over two years. I was very lucky that I had applied just a few days before the world changed on 9/11. I was worried, I had no idea what was going to happen; nobody knew. I thought, “The world is closing its doors, but I’ve worked so hard for this.” It wasn’t fair.
Two and a half years later, I finally received notice that I had been accepted as a permanent resident. I was only given 30 days to get to Canada. I never thought they would only give me 30 days to completely relocate my life! I was somewhat mentally prepared, but I had to wrap up 24 years of life in just a month. I was still living at my parents’ house; I had a boyfriend, a car, a good job at a publishing house. I even had a maid! I still really wanted to live in Canada, though, and it was so satisfying to go through such an intense process and have Canada say, “We want you. You are skilled and an asset to our country. Welcome to your new home.” That’s such an incredible feeling.
Had you seen Ottawa before you landed?
No, at that point I had never been to Canada. I had only seen it on TV and movies – you know, the iconic Mountie, the flag, igloos, snow, seals, and polar bears. I really didn’t know much about Ottawa. I remember choosing Ottawa because it was the capital – in my mind that meant a gigantic, magical urban landscape where everything happens. It took me about a week to realize, “Oh, this is it? This is the downtown core?” The population is like a tenth of what I was used to. I was never disappointed, though. I was really excited to be here.
And what is your life like now?
As a person, I’ve grown so much in the past ten years. I have a beautiful apartment, a career as an artist, and I get to live in Ottawa. I’ve seen this city grow so much since I arrived, too. It’s practically a different city. It’s hard to keep up with all the cool things that are happening. The arts and creative scenes are just booming.
Professionally, my greatest success was having my photos exhibited at the Ottawa airport. That was not only an amazing experience, but so thematically appropriate. I mean, I landed as an immigrant in that airport; the moment those doors open and you walk into the country is like being born. If someone had told me that less than ten years later I would be a photographer with an exhibit at that very same airport I would have said, “You can’t be serious!” Just like walking through that airport for the first time launched my new life, I feel like this exhibit was an opportunity for me to truly launch my life as a photographer.
This adventure has surpassed my own expectations. I’m glad I’ve gotten to spend the last 10 years doing things my way. I feel like I’ve accomplished certain level of success, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
*Not her real name.