With strong family ties, a mixed ethnic and cultural background, and an extremely
protective father, Vivan Kayeg El Jamal never really dreamt of moving abroad for
Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil to a Lebanese and Italian immigrant family, El Jamal experienced all the challenges of a kid living among three different cultures. She was intensely family-oriented, and grew up in a large family with homes on the same street. “I would always be at my grandparent’s place when there was no one home,” she says.
El Jamal always thought she’d stay in Sao Paulo for post-secondary education. However, she had the opportunity to sign up for a summer conference at University of British Columbia (UBC) in grade 11; when she visited the campus for the conference she was mesmerized by the beautiful campus and the learning spaces that UBC had to offer. This led her to do research about Canada and further research about UBC. Eventually, she realized it was the place for her after high school.
It took El Jamal some time to convince her protective father to let her move abroad at the age of 17. As a minor, she also needed authorization from the Brazilian government to leave the country. But she persisted in following her dream, and in 2013 moved to Vancouver to pursue her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Economics at UBC.
El Jamal faced many challenges in adjusting to life in Vancouver and at UBC. For example, her graduating high school class at her small international school in Sao Paulo had only 12 students, with only 500 in the entire school. Entering UBC – a school with 60,000 students – was completely out of her comfort zone. “I would always be late because I could never find the class,” she laughs. “I was so intimidated because the class sizes were so big compared to my high school!”
Getting used to the language here was tough too. “Back home I was able to use both English and Portuguese at school, but here I had to speak English 100% of the time,” says El Jamal. “It was hard to find a perfect translation for some words,” and this sometimes stopped her from being able to fully express herself. She was afraid students from English-speaking countries would make fun of her accent. Eventually, she grew more confident, and now “I just talk, and hope they understand!”
As a protected 17-year-old, El Jamal also found it difficult to manage the chores of everyday life. “I love cooking, but I didn’t realize that cooking every day would be a struggle, plus I would have to remember to do grocery shopping too, and most of the food would go to waste,” she says.
Her biggest struggle occurred when she had to move off campus after losing on-campus housing. Missing her friends who were still living on campus, “I would always stay over at UBC at a friend’s because I lived alone downtown,” says Jamal.
Despite the challenges, El Jamal found many positive changes in her new home. For one, she felt a sense of freedom and safety in Vancouver. “We don’t walk or take the bus back home because it’s not that safe, so it was very shocking for me that [Vancouver] was so safe,” she explains. She also loved that she could get everywhere she needed to go within walking distance: “It was shocking, but also so freeing!”
Does she miss home? El Jamal admits she’s been very divided on this issue. “We always miss what we don’t have at the moment; when I’m home I miss Vancouver, when I’m in Vancouver, I miss home,” she says.
While she wants to pursue career opportunities in Toronto, El Jamal also mentions that ultimately she wants to be close to her family. She wants her kids to grow up with her parents the way she grew up in a close-knit family with her grandparents.
Wherever she goes in the future, Jamal is grateful for the opportunity she has had to create a new, independent life in Vancouver.