Born in the quiet province of Tarlac, Rowena Rozal grew up in a big family. Together with her five siblings, her parents provided them with more than just food and a roof over their head.
“My parents provided us with a unique foundation in life with their wisdom and profound insight of the human soul,” Rowena said. “They instilled in us to be kind, compassionate and forgiving—values that remain resonate in our hearts and mind.”
As she grew up and started to go through life as a young woman, finding herself in the process, Rowena clung even tighter to the values her parents instilled in her.
After earning her nursing degree from the University of Santo Tomas and getting her license as a registered nurse, she decided to seek employment abroad for a chance at a better life. It was when was working in Qatar when she applied to immigrate to Canada. But an opportunity to move to Canada wasn’t the only thing she found in the Middle East.
Worth the wait
Rowena met her husband Virgilion Zamora while she was working in Qatar. Rowena admits she got restless because it took so long for her immigration application to be approved. Her restlessness led her to find a job in Florida, USA. It was in Florida that they received an immigration update from Canada.
“We decided to take our chances, packed and crammed our worldly belongings in a cube van and drove up to Toronto,” Rowena recalled.
That was 22 years ago.
“When we tell people that we came from Florida but decided to live in Canada, there is disbelief that we moved from a sunny place to a cold and freezing country. So what made us make the move?” Rowena shared. “Not what my husband jokingly tell people—that I like wearing a hat, gloves and a fashionable coat—but that Canada, especially Toronto, is a big place but has the small town feel that I am comfortable with.”
She adds, “I felt the warmth of the people and instinctly knew that I can grow and mature while being able to hold on to the values instilled in me by my parents.”
The friends of Rowena’s brother and sister-in-law graciously welcomed them when they arrived in Canada and helped them get on their feet when they landed. “[They] were kind enough to welcome us and offer us advice on being new immigrants. They eventually became one of our closest friends as we were honoured with being the godparents of their children,” Rowena said.
Being a registered nurse with experience, Rowena didn’t have a hard time finding a job. But it was a challenge for her husband. “It was not the same for him with a degree in the sciences,” Rowena explained. “For the first few years I was juggling three jobs and he [had two] jobs.”
Despite having multiple jobs to sustain their new life in the Great White North, Rowena and Virgilion made it a point to make time for each other.
“We made it a point [to make] time together, even if it was just seeing each other while coming off one job and going on to the next,” she recalled. “When we eventually got a car, he would drop me off or pick me up.”
Today, Rowena works as a Registered Nurse at the Critical Care Unit of the Hospital for Sick Children (Sickkids) in Toronto.
“When I started working in the CCU, I was the only other Filipino-Canadian RN in the unit,” she recalls. “Being new in the country, I felt I needed someone who understood what I was experiencing and will give me a good insight on the work environment. At the start I was shy and quiet while quickly absorbing the work culture. The expectations from me were high and I felt the pressure to prove myself.”
Despite getting restless while waiting for their immigration status, Rowena believes it was all worth the wait. Not only did they find better opportunities in Canada eventually, but they also had a newfound appreciate of each other as husband and wife.
“My husband has been very supportive with all my endeavours in my career and education. He encouraged me to finish my Master’s Degree when I began to lose interest and energy,” she said. “He also has not lost sight of the fact that to be able to have a meaningful career, he has to supplement his degree with educational courses that will provide him the leverage needed to advance to a better job opportunity.”
The Best Thing About Canada is…
“The best thing about life in Canada is the people,” Rowena says.
She adds, “As my late mother observed and experienced while living here for a short period, the people are warm, welcoming and compassionate to their fellow human beings regardless of where they come from and their [beliefs].”
Rowena is also very appreciative of Canada’s universal healthcare system—something she personally encounters with several people on a day-to-day basis as a nurse.
“Universal health care is the other best thing about life in Canada. Being in healthcare, I have the inside knowledge on the excellent quality of care that Canadians get that is not compromised by the cost.”
Despite finding better opportunities in Canada, Rowena can’t help but miss home, especially Filipino food.
“I miss the life that we had while growing up. I miss [everyday] conversations with my family,” she beamed. “I miss the food peddled by hawkers—fish ball, turon, banana cue, ‘dirty’ ice cream, fried mani (peanuts). We can get those here, but it is not the same as we cannot stand or sit at the sidewalk while chomping and chatting with friends. I miss the afternoon naps and waking up to a merienda of hot kakanin (rice delicacies) and a bottle of [soda].”
Her new life in Canada is filled with new experiences and exciting opportunities, which she openly welcomes with “the knowledge that [she has] a sound and solid foundation from [her] education and experience in the Philippines. With this strength, [she] evolved into a better clinician with a newfound confidence in [her] abilities.”
Pinay and Proud
“When we came to Canada we did not have family here,” Rowena recalls. “Now, my brother and his family as well as my cousins are here. We keep in touch on a regular basis with “fam-jams” as this is a way of keeping our heritage and legacy alive for the next generation.”
Rowena explains that their ‘fam-jams’ often include stories about the way of life in the Philippines, delicious Filipino food, “and anything related to Philippine life to broaden the young generation’s understanding and appreciation of [the Filipino] heritage.”
“We are proud to share with Canadians who appreciate the unique taste of Filipino cuisine,” she shared.
Rowena and her husband also frequent Filipino festivals organized by Filipino communities “as a way of showing [their] support and solidarity with kababayans.” She adds, “We have widened our circle of friends with Filipino-Canadians who have enriched our lives and who have kept us connected with the wider Filipino-Canadian community.”
At work, Rowena continues to exhibit the values her parents taught her, as well as her general upbringing in the Philippines.
She says, “With my Filipino background and heritage, I was able to relate well with an international audience that had similar cultural and social background… This job has given me the chance to be involved in global health care. I had the opportunity to share my knowledge with other healthcare providers in Qatar as a Subject Matter Expert and Clinical Instructor under Sickkids International.”
“My job as paediatric RN in the Critical Care Unit (CCU) has given me the opportunity to take care of the ‘sickest of the sick.’ It is a demanding and stressful job, but the rewards are immeasurable,” she said. “Telling parents that I will be taking care of their child comes with an enormous responsibility that I do not take lightly. Whatever the outcome of their child’s stay in the CCU, they leave knowing that their child received the very best of care.”
After 22 years, Rowena says, “Canada has given me a home away from home.”
She continues, “Moving here has widened my perspective of life, exposed me to cultures that enriched my adult life, provided the social milieu that made me grow as a person, and affirmed my belief that there is goodness in every one. The generosity of Canadians to the less fortunate never fails to move me and encourages me to be as altruistic and selfless.”
For those who are thinking of moving to Canada for good, or for those who just arrived at the Great White North in search of a better life for themselves and their families, Rowena has a few words of wisdom.
“It is easy to forget or compromise your values when you are trying to integrate into a new society, [but] you should remain strong and steadfast in holding on to those values inculcated in you by your parents and family,” Rowena points out, adding that a strong faith in whatever religion you have, and values like loyalty, fidelity, selfless devotion to family, strong work ethics, and respect are all important traits to have when making a new life—anywhere.
“Your brain or mind should be like a sponge—absorb everything—but at the same time be like a sieve so you can filter out that which makes you less,” she says about work, explaining that setting a career goal for yourself will also be helpful to keep you on track and not be overwhelmed with all the changes.
“Be ambitious but temper it with realism and common sense… Perseverance is a key to success. Do not throw in the towel at the first sign of failure… Take risks but do so responsibly… Lastly, remind yourself that you are a Filipino and a Canadian and with that in mind you are already truly a success.”
All photos courtesy of Rowena Rozal-Zamora