Emeka and Chinenye Okaekwu, originally from Nigeria, knew immediately upon researching Canadian provinces that Nova Scotia was the place they were meant to call home.
“We liked the fact that it’s a laidback province,” Chinenye, also known as Chinny for short, or by her English name Kate, said of what drew their family of four, including seven-year-old Muna and three-year-old Zikora, to the small Maritime province.
“We made the decision straight from South Africa to come and settle down here,” Chinenye said on a recent sunny Saturday in a small Bedford mall, an environment that still felt friendly despite shoppers keeping their physical distance and wearing mandatory masks.
“This is the first place we’ve ever lived in Canada and we love it here.”
“It suits our lifestyle,” she continued. “I think this is the best place to bring our family; we like the values here.”
The young family, originally from Nigeria but based in South Africa before their move, arrived in Nova Scotia in September 2017 and quickly settled in Bedford, where they are now renting a house and hope to buy their own home in the near future.
While it didn’t take long for Chinenye to find work in her field, including her current position as a food safety supervisor with P&H Milling Group in Halifax, her husband started off having to travel back and forth overseas to continue work to in South Africa while searching for a job here that was the right fit for his specific qualifications as an electrical engineer with managerial experience.
“It was a little bit tricky,” Emeka, also known as David by his Canadian colleagues and friends, said of often finding out from potential employers that he was overqualified for positions that were posted. “I had some things come up but it was more in Toronto (and) the big cities; they were interviewing me.”
But here in Nova Scotia, Emeka felt like he “was almost begging” for jobs, a challenge he had never faced before with his impressive qualifications. He even tried removing his Masters degrees from job applications with the hope employers would give him a chance to get through the door.
“While I was in South Africa, I worked full-time, but over the weekends I taught in the university,” said Emeka, whose specialty was telecommunications. “I taught electrical engineering courses, electronics and digital systems.”
The couple remained determined to plant their roots firmly in Nova Scotia. So Emeka continued teaching for the University of South Africa online while remaining on the job hunt here.
“When the time was right, it came,” Emeka said of his current position as an electrical engineer with the Government of Nova Scotia’s occupational health and safety division, where he has been working for about a year now.
“I look after the underground, subsea coal mines in Donkin … under the Atlantic Ocean,” as well as the salt mines in Pugwash, he explained. “I do regulatory reviews, making sure that the businesses are run within the legislative requirements to make sure everyone is safe.”
Chinenye’s role is also focused on keeping people safe, ensuring “that we are compliant to regulations,” albeit in a completely different area and one that she’s quite passionate about.
“I love food,” said Chinenye, who has her own Masters degree in life sciences and hopes to eventually pursue her PhD in food safety at one of Nova Scotia’s post-secondary institutions.
“I do all things food,” she explained. “During the day, I get to do the technical role of food and (then) I love cooking at home.”
So much so, in fact, that she has her own YouTube channel called Bake with Chinny, which includes everything from the meals she grew up with to a range of delicious desserts. “So when I come back (from work), how I relax is, I like making recipe videos.”
“I’m watching my weight,” Emeka said with a chuckle. “She cooks a lot, she enjoys it, and I’m the benefactor.”
He’s certain it will soon become his wife’s secondary business. “You can always go and subscribe (to her channel),” he said, as his wife laughed while keeping a watchful eye on their two children, who were eager to get to the playground in nearby DeWolf Park, nestled on the Bedford Basin.
Muna, called Chandel in Canada, will be going into Grade 2 at Sunnyside Elementary School while Zikora, who also goes by David, will enter pre-primary, assuming life returns to some semblance of normal come this fall.
The family has not only successfully juggled being new to Canada, but also managed to balance COVID-19 restrictions by having Emeka work from home and help with the children while Chinenye continues to go to work in her essential services role, following strict “control measures to ensure the health and safety of everyone.”
“I worked from home and I had the kids with me,” Emeka said. “It was interesting because I had to bond with them much more. Other times, before COVID, we barely spent three hours in a whole 24 hour together, so it was a time that I enjoyed because even though it was demanding, having them around, it was fun.”
Emeka and Chinenye celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary on Aug. 11. They’re looking forward to applying for Canadian citizenship soon and hope to start exploring the province’s various beaches and other hidden nature gems now that the pandemic has slowed down.
They were also hoping to have the children’s grandparents come to Canada this fall but COVID-19 travel restrictions have slowed that process down.
There’s a “longevity in the lifestyle” here, Emeka feels, and they hope to see more of their family members make the move to the Maritimes once it’s safe to start the application process up again.
“Canada is very welcoming,” Chinenye said, adding Nova Scotians seem particularly inviting and warm, which helped make moving halfway around the world much easier for the family.
“We’ve come to meet some nice people and make new friends here,” Emeka said, adding the family has participated in several programs at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotian (ISANS).
The family also helps and interacts with other immigrants through the Association of Nigerians in Nova Scotia and attends the Rock Church in Lower Sackville, where Emeka plays music for the kid’s ministry.
“I play guitar, bass guitar and a little bit of piano,” Emeka said of his passion outside of work. “There will be a band, eventually.”
“Food and music,” he said, the couple sharing another chuckle. “That’s the signature we have in our family.”
Muna, who started taking piano lessons before the COVID crisis, and little brother Zikora, spent some of their weekend afternoon peering into the ocean looking for sea creatures, sliding and swinging in the playground, as well as striking poses for the camera and twirling in the green space on an idyllic summer day in the nearby park.
The two children also seem quite taken with their Nova Scotia home.
“It’s carefree!” exclaimed Muna when asked what she thinks of Canada. “It’s nice and peaceful.”
Emeka echoed his wife’s earlier words as he looked on as his kids played happily. “We love it here.”