Long Trip to University of Toronto

October 1970

When I had finished my B.Sc. degree at the American Al-Hikma University in Baghdad in June 1968, I could not leave Iraq to continue my Master’s studies, since no Jew could get a passport to leave. But anyway I applied to several US universities and some Canadian universities that the uncle of my father, Abdullah Obadiah, who was the principal of the Frank Iny and Shamash Jewish secondary school where I had done my high school studies, had given me. I was accepted by all of them since I had finished my B.Sc. studies as the first of my class with a SUMMA CUM LAUDE citation. But obviously I could not leave Iraq to continue my studies in any of these universities.

The start of the year 1969 was a very bad period, with all the phony trials and brutal hangings of the “so- called” Jewish spies that the Saddam regime has orchestrated to subjugate the population. We were scared of our own shadow. Then suddenly I get a letter from the Engineering Department at the University of Toronto in Feb 1969 saying that last year you had applied to us and we accepted you – what are you planning to do this year? I was furious – for a Jew to get a letter from abroad, in this bad period, was very dangerous. I just took the letter and threw it to the garbage. Two months later I got another letter from the University of Toronto asking me if I had sent the application forms! I thought it seems they want me so much – so I answered them that I have sent the forms and maybe they did not get them. They wrote back to me that I was accepted again and given an assistantship. Obviously I could not leave also and I wrote them a letter that I cannot come.

Next year in Feb 1970, I sent an application again to the University of Toronto and again I was accepted with assistantship. The year 1970 also brought with it new hope for escaping, as a ceasefire was signed between the Kurdish rebellion leaders in the North and the Saddam regime. In the context of this ceasefire a large piece of Iraqi territory, where the the Kurds lived adjacent to both the Iranian and Turkish borders, became an autonomous Kurdish territory, off-limits to the Iraqi military forces. Following that, one Jew with his family escaped through the Kurdish North to Iran, and hope started for the Jews that there might be way after all to escape the Iraqi Saddamic hell..

My father Ezra made then contact with a Kurdish smuggler and we had now some hope to escape. The University semester was supposed to start in Sep 70, with a preparatory computer programming course in August. At the start of September we were still in Baghdad, in the midst of intense preparations for our escape. On Sep 5, I got a letter from the University of Toronto, saying that every year this time I usually cancel my application! What was I planning to do this year? Full of optimism and bravado, I answered that this year, I hope I am coming! With all these letter exchanges along 2 years, I was wondering who in the University of Toronto had the patience to stick with me that long. Few days after I sent my letter, we did escape from Iraq to Iran, in a very perilous journey.

When we reached Teheran, capital of Iran, the immigration representatives of Israel there were expecting all Jewish escapees from Iraq to go to Israel. This was the only alternative, as we were all without any passports and had received a 1-month laissez-passer document from the Iranian authorities, giving us a 1-month period to find ourselves a new country and leave Iran.

I went to the Canadian embassy and met there the second-in-command to the ambassador; the ambassador was a roving ambassador for both Iran and Iraq and this was his time in Iraq. This was lucky as his second-in-command was a young Canadian who understood my plight. I also struck with him a sort of friendship, as I explained to him what I went through and asked his assistance to go to Toronto to start my studies. He told me that this was practically impossible, because I had no passport but he was willing to try. He contacted the University of Toronto and they confirmed that I am accepted there and that I also have an assistantship. He then started working versus the Canadian Foreign ministry in Ottawa, trying to find a way how he can get me there. Weeks passed and my parents, brother and sister left to Israel. I stayed at the house of my aunt Madeleine, waiting for the process to advance.

At one meeting with him he came up with the following demand – since I had no country anymore, having escaped illegally from Iraq, if they would allow me to enter Canada and then somehow I turned out to be an unwanted personality, then they had no country where they could return me to. So he asked me to get him a letter from the Israelis, that if Canada does not want me, eventually they could send me to Israel. Now normally the Israelis wanted every Jewish refugee to go to Israel and I thought they would normally be unwilling to give me such a letter. Then help came – the husband of my aunt Madeleine, Nathan Bakhash, was friendly with the Israeli military attaché in the Israeli embassy in Tehran and he was able to get from him an official letter stating that the Canadians could always send me to Israel, if I became eventually an unwanted personality.

This letter was the last missing piece of the puzzle, and now the foreign ministry of Canada was willing to grant me a student visa. I suspect the Canadians actually wanted me in the first place, as Canada is a huge country with small population and is always looking for quality immigrants, but simply the bureaucrats in the embassy and the Canadian foreign ministry wanted to cover themselves in case something went wrong. And I could also say that the enthusiasm of the young second-in-command in the Canadian embassy in Teheran and the relation I developed with him was definitely a deciding factor also.

Anyway the great day came and my student visa arrived. Then an unexpected problem surfaced – since I had no valid passport and my Iranian 1-month long laissez-passer has meanwhile expired, and was worthless now - where will they stamp my student visa? The Canadian ambassador’s second-in-command decided to be creative – he stamped the student visa on a blank piece of paper and on another paper, he wrote: To Whom it May concern, I know Emil Somekh for 1 month now and he is a nice person! With these 2 pieces of paper in my hand, I was to start my long journey to Toronto, Canada.

My aunt’s husband, Nathan, got me a direct flight ticket to Toronto and accompanied me to the airport. He managed to have a small fight with the Iranian official in the airport, over some insignificant matter and I finally boarded an airplane for the first time in my life – I was 22 and ready to start a new life as a Master’s student in structures at the Engineering Dept of the University of Toronto in Canada. My main worry as I boarded the plane was whether it would fly over Iraq or any other Arab country in its route out of Iran. My plane seat was near the window, right by the big wing – I saw the wing having some strange convulsions, which for a normal plane traveler might mean nothing, but for my inexperienced eyes in a first flight, was quite foreboding!

As it always happens, there was some bad weather along the way and the aircraft decide to make an unscheduled stop in London. Since I was a stateless person, this meant that if I entered the London airport, I could decide to stay in England as a refugee and the British would have no place to send me to. So while all the passengers went into the terminal for a few hour stop, I was not allowed to do that – the British brought a bench by the aircraft and I had to wait there, guarded by a British policeman, until the aircraft was ready to take off again. I still remember myself sitting on that bench, in the middle of the night, with the huge aircraft towering over me!

After few hours the aircraft took off, crossing the Atlantic to Toronto, Canada. I still remember seeing the lights of Toronto for the first time from the aircraft, as it prepared for its descent to the city. My papers were OK and I took a taxi from the airport to the center of Toronto. Knowing that there must me a YMCA hostel in such a big city, I asked the taxi driver to take me to one at the center of the city, as I assumed the University should be also located close by at the city center. I slept that first night in the YMCA hostel and then in the morning I took a walk to the University, starting the next leg of my adventure.

When I arrived at the Galbraith Building of the faculty of engineering at the University of Toronto, I was directed to the office of graduate studies, since I was going to do my Masters in Structural Engineering. As is the routine, the secretary of graduate studies sent me to a Professor who would be my advisor through my graduate studies – his name was Professor Wright. When I entered his room in the second floor, he asked me why I was 2 months late, arriving to the University. I told him I was a Jew and I could not leave Iraq legally and had to escape. He said to me: don’t you think Israel is overdoing it?

I was stupefied with his question: I have never been to Israel and still, since I was a Jew, it seemed he was indirectly accusing me of being responsible for Israel’s victory over the Arab countries in the 1967 six day war, which was basically a legitimate defense war by Israel against the Arab countries, who were threatening to annihilate Israel. I chose not to answer his question.

I then told him that I want to finish my Master’s degree in 1 year. He said to me that, not only that I missed the computer programming course, which he was responsible for and that was attended by all the graduate students before the start of studies, I have missed also another month of the start of regular studies. He then said it should take me at least 2 years to finish my Master’s degree! So here I had to deal with an advisor that, not only did not like Israel and considered me partly responsible for its actions, but was also negative regarding my capability to finish my Master’s degree in 1 year.

At that moment I took a daring decision, being already only fifteen minutes in this University -  I just got up, left his room and went back to the office of graduate studies secretary, asking them to assign me to another advisor.  I was simply taking control of the situation! This bold act would change all the future of my professional career, the launch of my own company and my success in business.

The secretary consented to my request and sent me to another advisor: Professor Selby. His room was also in the second floor, diagonally opposite to Professor Wright’s room - just 2 meters apart, but actually like they came from two different worlds. Professor Selby was smiling when I entered his room. I told him that I want to finish my Master’s Degree in 1 year – he said no problem! I told him that Professor Wright said that I missed the computer programming course – he said no problem and gave me a Fortran programming book to study programming on my own. What a difference from the sour and unsupportive Professor Wright!

It was Friday and I left the University with the Fortran programming book. During the weekend I started studying the Fortran language and fell in love with programming – it looked easy and interesting! I advanced well and felt confident about Fortran programming, going to the University on Monday morning. I went directly to Professor Wright’s office and asked him to give me all the Fortran programming exercises that the students did in the monthly programming course. I did them all in 3 days and went back with the results printout to Professor Wright – he was stupefied and told me: You are a tiger! That was the beautiful start of my love story with computer programming!

I was assigned a room at the University with another graduate Chinese student. I was trying to get information from him regarding where the lectures were held and the material I missed – but he was surprisingly very uncooperative! I went to my first lecture – the teacher was Professor Wright. At the end of the lecture, I hesitantly approached a graduate student from India, after the cold treatment I got from the Chinese student in my room, and asked him if I could take his notes, from the lectures that I missed, for just one hour to photocopy them – he said no problem take them for the whole weekend and just bring them to me next week. I was stupefied – he has met me for the first time and yet he trusted me to take his original notes for the weekend. This nice and helpful approach, from this graduate student from India, was repeated by many other graduate students from India that I studied with. I could definitely say, after these experiences, that there is something very nice and deeply human and cooperative in the Indian culture..

Another important point that I had still to find answer for: who was the person in Toronto University that persisted after me all those 2 years, until finally I could escape from Iraq and come here. The answer was – Professor Uzumeri, originally from Turkey. He was responsible for the recruitment of graduate students. I asked him how come he was so patient and consistent in his contacts with me, until I could finally come. He said: I am from the Middle East originally and I knew you had a problem to leave Iraq, because of some political reason. You were first in your University and had excellent marks – we wanted students like you and I decided to persevere with you! His cooperative approach worked and we both succeeded – he got a good student and I came to Canada to do my studies!

The course load and my first snow-filled winter, alone in a new country, were both quite hard! As spring approached and the snow started to melt, I started feeling better. Then a breakthrough came – Professor Selby held a lecture for all the students he was advising, giving us ideas for the main thesis we were supposed to do, as part of our Master’s degree requirements. He was talking about the different potential projects, when he showed one interesting slide – a picture drawn on a computer graphics screen! It immediately caught my attention – I could stil see it in front of my eyes, several decades later! This single slide changed all my professional career. Professor Selby told us that this picture was from a Computer Graphics project that one of his graduate students, Kamille Karamelian, an Armenian from Lebanon, had already done in the Computer Science Dept.  I decided to do my thesis in Computer Graphics applications in Engineering.

It was a very interesting period, doing the programming for my Master’s project. It was already summer and the weather in Toronto was beautiful, after the harsh winter. I was doing programming work with computer graphics – something I loved – the whole day at my room at the University. Around 6 pm I went to have a nice dinner and then continued programming till around 11 pm, when I got finally access to the computer at the computer science department.

The engineering department did not have any facility for computer graphics. The only graphics screen in the whole University of Toronto was an IBM 2250 screen that cost $100,000. To draw on it, I had to get the full power of the computer of the computer science department, a computer that filled a whole large room. I had to wait till around midnight, when no other student was using the computer, so that I can get the full power of it! The graphic lines and arcs on the IBM screen were quite shaky, but to my eyes they were the most beautiful thing! It took me 2 months to finish my thesis project and my advisor was quite happy – but I told him that I want to do another graphic project. He was surprised! I did the second project also and by the time I finished, my program consisted of a long box containing 2000 Fortran program perforated cards! All in all, I finished my Master’s degree in 9 months since I started, with a perfect A average!

I was very excited that I found a very interesting subject to work in, but I was in for a big disappointment – there was no work for engineers at all in Canada when I finished my studies. This fact would lead me to my next great adventure – Israel!