For the longest time, I was only able to get the supporting role in life. And though you may be thinking, “I didn’t know Safa was an actress," well, I’m not. I literally mean that I always focused on helping others and making them happy for the first 13 years of my life. As the years passed, nothing of significance appeared to stand out in my memories, only glimpses of amusement parks and birthday parties.
Perhaps it was because my long-term memory is weak, or maybe those years were blurry because I didn't focus on myself. When I looked at others, I even saw them as bystanders in their own stories. Other friends tell me that they remember most of their childhood adventures clearly, but I can't say the same because my brain didn't mark my childhood as something that I played a significant role in.
Thankfully, I can tell you that every moment of the last three years is crystal clear because of the precious friends I've made in high school, especially my five best friends. These girls have given me the motivation to become a better person for myself and for others. I used to want to live a "normal" life and only engage in necessary activities but nowadays, I find myself wanting to do more, to do things that I'm interested in and wanting to invest myself in.
When I was younger, I loved writing about anything, and I even won second place in the Reflections Contest in middle school. This year, I joined Odyssey because I wanted to revive the girl who always passionately transferred her words to paper, regardless of the topic. I've started reading books for my enjoyment again, rather than simply for school assignments. A few days ago, I picked up "Coma" by Robin Cooke because I hadn't picked up a medical thriller (my favorite genre) since seventh grade.
There are so many more little things that I've begun to do that bring me joy in the midst of my overwhelming exams and assignments, all thanks to my supportive friends who inspire me and remind me that it's okay to indulge in myself.
Neha writes beautiful stories for her growing fan-base on Tumblr (I'm her #1 fan).
Divya is a devoted gamer and watches true crime shows.
Michelle uses her marvelous looks and brain to ace math competitions (she isn't a nerd, so get that stereotypical image out of your head).
Tiffany creates amazing digital art and equally amazing paintings (I take pictures of every one of her exhibitions in school).
And Emily does covers on YouTube with her lovely honey voice (I'm also her #1 fan).
Seeing them find time for the things that make them happy motivates me to do the same.
The friend who played the largest part in encouraging me to find myself was the one I made on the first day of ninth grade: Neha Satish. I will always remember those awkward but heartwarming five minutes for the rest of my life. Neha and I were both from different middle schools that didn't feed into our high school, so we didn't know anyone. We had noticed each other in first period, and we had seen each other again during lunch. My dad had come to the front lobby to pick me up at the end of the day, and Neha happened to be passing by to go to her car, too. She suddenly stopped in front of me.
“Do you want to eat lunch together tomorrow?” she asked.
I was startled to say the least, yet I was also elated. And so began our beautiful friendship. Neha knows me more than I know myself. I tell her my secrets and worries, and in return, she provides me with encouragement and comfort. Sometimes, we're the exact same person, and sometimes, we're polar opposites.
I used to be very cautious about my opinions around other people because I didn't want to hurt their feelings or cause disagreements. However, Neha and I have so many different views that we share without triggering each other. She taught me to think that my thoughts and opinions were valuable.
When anyone asks me who my role model is, I would tell them it's Neha Satish (so are you, Mom; don't freak out). Neha is a strong, loyal and reliable friend. She isn't afraid to pursue what she wants, and she knows how to make herself happy. This girl never runs out of motivational quips that always have me drowning in tears and gratitude. Without her, I would still be focused on making others happy and supporting them instead of myself.
When I told her that I wanted to start living a better life for myself, she promised me that she would help me through every step of the way and that she would make sure her shoulder was nearby when I needed someone to lean on. And finally, that she would support my every decision.
To this day, she has never broken that promise.
Like most children, growing up I did not appreciate the tremendous influence that my parents had on shaping my values and beliefs. As an adult currently working with immigrants to Canada, I now realize just how much my parents and their experiences have impacted me.
My mother was a young woman in her early twenties when she crossed the Atlantic alone, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, before taking the train to Montreal, and then Toronto. She was the youngest daughter of six children, and had never before this experience traveled away from her familiar neighborhood of Kalogonia (literally "the good corner") in Sparti, Greece. However, she was of a time when dowries were expected of families by grooms. Appreciating how hard her parents worked, she chose to leave home to alleviate this future obligation when she, one day, would marry. Having limited education, no English language, little money and few other family members abroad... I am often amazed when I consider the journey upon which she embarked. I often wish I could meet my mother at the age of 25 and discuss her fears, challenges and hopes at the time. But she survived, indeed succeeded, in many ways... with grace, determination and tremendous kindness, bringing to Canada a future husband, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews.
As a man in that era, my father had the opportunity to travel more than my mother before arriving in Canada; mandatory military duty at that time for all Greek men meant that he had seen many parts of the country, including snowy parts of Northern Greece (a prelude of things to come, perhaps). Born and raised in a small village in southern Greece, my father's entrepreneurial spirit shone through from a young age: He was the first young man in his village to buy a bicycle as a means of transportation, and to set up shop as a tailor in the next village. But he wanted more, beyond Greece, and when a friend he trusted told him his sister in Canada was "of age" for marriage... my father agreed to the engagement and subsequent travel across the Atlantic. He, too, arrived without much money, no English language and limited education, but a drive to succeed, a strong work ethic and solid family values. Even in the toughest of times, his humor and positive attitude pulled him forward. To this day, "don't worry, be happy" is one of his favorite English sayings!
Together my parents built a life as newcomers in a land they would come to greatly appreciate, one which they saw as opening up opportunities for them and their future family. Along the way, their experiences provided me many valuable "life lessons," including the following five:
Respect: Throughout their lives, my parents demonstrated a solid respect for all individuals, regardless of their background. They truly enjoyed people, with the result that their customers, neighbors, colleagues and employers from a wide cross-section of ethnicities, ages and income levels cherished them! Fundamentally, my parents also taught us to always respect ourselves and our families, which then made it easy to extend the same care and appreciation to others.
Language: Both of my parents struggled to learn English. They certainly found ways to cope, but on occasion my father would speak with regret that he had not more fully learned the language of his adopted country. There were experiences and opportunities he felt he had missed, as a result. From a young age, my parents helped me realize that the power of words, of language, cannot be underestimated for one to be a fully engaged citizen. Their struggles were my motivation to learn as much as possible, at all times.
Patience: Anybody knowing my father would agree that he likes to get things done immediately and would be surprised at my suggestion that I have learned patience from him! However, as a general philosophy, perhaps because of the era in which they were raised, perhaps because of the challenges they faced, both my parents appreciated that sometimes, some things... just take a little while. Waiting is okay; there is no need to rush through life, all the time. If something is meant to happen... it will. Born and raised in an agrarian society, they reminded me frequently that nature has its own timetable and cannot... and should not... be rushed.
Determination: My parents left their place of birth for an unknown country, with little information about what to expect. Each for their own reasons, was determined to make things work, despite challenges and roadblocks. They simply kept pushing through, not giving up in the face of adversity. As a student, whenever I neared the end of an essay or studies and felt I had no more energy or drive left, my father would offer encouragement by saying in Greek, "Τώρα που έφαγες τον γάιδαρο, θα αφήσεις την ουρά;" The literal (funny) question asked me how I planned to leave the tail -- when I had already finished off the rest of the donkey! But the essence, of course, was a reminder that since I had made it this far... I certainly had it in me to accomplish my ultimate goal!
Work and Play: This lesson is perhaps the most relevant and ties all other lessons together. My parents showed me what a strong work ethic meant. When they worked, they worked very hard. However, our home and life was also full of music, games and family activities. I still remember times after a full day at their store, my parents would close up shop late at night, get us into the car, and drive nearby for an ice cream... or further away to Niagara Falls to enjoy the evening lights on the water. They did not worry about "work-life balance"; they just incorporated both elements into their lives, when and as they could. Sometimes one area drew more of their attention, but eventually (with patience), the tide always seemed to turn the other way again.
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