At 17, he arrived as a stranger in a strange country with his entire life crammed into a single piece of luggage. He didn’t know a soul, speak the language and would not see his parents in his native Albania for five years.
“I left a child and went home a grown man,” Amarildo Topalli said of his journey.
Twenty years ago, Topalli, along with 10 teammates, travelled to Canada to play in the Henderson Memorial Soccer Tournament in London. Now, the Facilities Management staffer, with a decade of service, will cross the stage at Alumni Hall June 10 to pick up his Sociology degree.
“I tell people to appreciate what you have because it could change tomorrow,” he said. “When I was back home, I never appreciated my parents, because I thought everything was a given. But when you move on your own, it’s like, ‘Holy smokes.’ Now, I shake my head and understand.”
Two decades ago, Albania was not the place for young teenagers. The country’s emergence from a Communist regime combined with an unsettled economy, modest educational options and a newly inaugurated military conscription made for hard times.
“We heard good things about Canada – other than the snow,” Topalli jokes. “I told my mom and dad, when I left, what I was going to do, but even to this day they said they didn’t know or believe me that it would happen. There really was no guarantee. I didn’t know either.”
In the spring of 1995, Topalli arrived in Canada to play in a soccer tournament. And it was here, in London, he, along with his teammates, claimed refugee status.
It was a rare case to have 10 teenagers, along with their coach and his wife, claim refugee status at once. The process took a month or so before accommodations could be found. In the meantime, families from London’s St. John the Divine Parish community took the players into their homes for their first month in Canada.
Following this, they moved into apartments in the same building. The team that played together on the soccer pitch, now needed to come together off the field in order to survive. Through the help of social assistance – and just $195 a month for each teen – they started their new lives.
With their families back in Albania, coach Luca Shaqiri and his wife, Myzejen, who works as a lab supervisor in Western’s Department of Biology, became the teammates’ new “mother and father,” Topalli said.
“We came together as a team; it changed from fear to become more exciting. We were all in this together, and knew we could do this. We were all like brothers now – a new family,” he continued. “We would eat, rest, play soccer and head to bed. You had to make it work, and this is what we had. You didn’t turn your head and say, ‘Can I get something else? Can I get more?”
The group stayed together for almost four years, until everyone finished high school and moved to university or employment. During their time in London, most played for the London City Soccer Club. Unfortunately, knee and leg injuries sidelined Topalli for good. He stays involved in the sport through coaching, currently at Eurostar Academy in London.
He received his Canadian citizenship on Sept. 5, 2000, and his passport six days later. On Sept. 12, Topalli was on a flight looking forward to seeing his parents again for the first time in five years.
“It was very, very difficult,” he said. “I wanted to play a practical joke with them, you know, hide and see their reaction. But I remember as I came out of the airport, she (mom) ran right through the guards who were there and came and hugged me, all while they were running after her. She didn’t know she did that. She was grabbing my arm and kissing me. I was like, ‘Wow, and I wanted to play a joke on her?’ It was very emotional.”
Topalli’s parents, Dashamir and Hume, have since travelled to Canada to see the life he has made for himself in London. His mother was present for the birth of both his children, even cutting the umbilical cord for each. His parents, along with his wife, Anida, who is working on her own Economics degree, and their two boys, Enkli, 5, and Dion, 2, will join him at Convocation.
“My mom’s been waiting a long time. She keeps asking me, ‘When are you going to finish?’” he said. “Western is great in that they give you the opportunity to take courses. It’s where I work, so why not get that extra education? You end up learning so much. I never look at things the same way now. It gives you a different perspective on life.”
The former teammates remain friends, and while thoughts turn to his native Albania often, there is little temptation to return.
“People ask me if I would ever go back,” he said. “I left there when I was 17; I’ve been 20 years in Canada. This is my home; this is home for my kids. We’ve created a new life here.”