A Special Occasion

Natalia Mokhovinkova (+Video)


A mother and her two daughters go on a cruise for a break from the unending harassment at home. When they arrive at the port, they get some terrifying news that changes their travel plans and lives.


When children are born, they don’t choose a nationality or a religion. 

I didn’t know what to say when my four-year-old daughter told me that other kids didn’t want to be friends with her because she was half-Afghan. I felt powerless when a nationalist group of teenagers threw stones at my ten-year-old daughter on the grounds of her private Jewish school. Still, I didn’t consider immigration because I saw how badly my husband was treated in my country. Instead, I bought tickets for myself and my daughters for a cruise to distract them from our reality.

Then, just a month before the cruise, my son, the eldest, didn’t return home. We spent ten days searching the hospitals, morgues and parks of St. Petersburg. I finally found him in a psychiatric clinic in a terrible emotional state. He’d been attacked by skinheads. 

The long-awaited cruise seemed ill-timed then. I didn’t want to leave my son for ten days, but for the sake of my two daughters, I agreed, with a heavy heart, to go. 

The ship was luxurious. We couldn’t understand English, but for a time, we could believe in another world where there was no need to be afraid. Our first stop was Quebec. The city met us with sunny streets, red maple trees and tourist shops. I phoned my husband. His first words were that a hate group had shot at the windows of our apartment right into the room where our girls usually slept. He and my son had gone into hiding. Instantly, my heart sank. He kept on talking, but I heard nothing. 

When I returned to the ship, there was only one thought in my head: We can’t go back to Russia! I had to protect the children. Yet my heart was breaking apart at the thought of what would happen to my son when he realized that I wasn’t returning. 

After a sleepless night, the morning crept up unexpectedly. The girls chirped cheerfully in anticipation of breakfast at the buffet of the ship. I announced my decision. They became very quiet. The plan was simple—eat as much as possible, take only the most valuable things, and leave the ship with the rest of the tourists, trying not to attract the attention of the police. We put on several layers of clothing. The next step was putting on our shoes. 

I let the children choose their own shoes. It would have been more practical to wear the casual shoes we had brought for every day. Yet all three of us, without saying a word, chose our dress shoes. Mine were velvet with a low, solid heel. I had bought them at the last moment before the cruise “for a special occasion”. This day became that “special occasion”. 

Perhaps this wasn’t the right choice, given that Calgary met us with snow and Vancouver with heavy rain during our three-day bus ride. But that was later. For now, we focused on holding hands tightly and descending the ramp to the maple shore of “freedom”. The sound of three pairs of heels clacked in unison with the sound of my beating heart. I was leaving behind my life as I knew it. 

“Welcome to Canada,” said the bus depot cashier who sold us tickets to Vancouver, the farthest city from where we’d come ashore. With those friendly words, I knew that no matter our nationality or religion, here we might live without fear. I had made the right decision. Those black velvet shoes gave me the strength and courage to walk my family into safety and freedom.

NATALIA MOKHOVINKOVA was a businesswoman in St. Petersburg, Russia. She lived there with her Afghan husband. She and her two daughters received asylum in Canada in 2012 and were later joined by her husband and son. She now works with seniors and is trying to establish herself as an artist in Canada.

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