YADSIE MEETS ALL TRAINS
At depots and docks in twenty-one Canadian cities and towns Travellers Aid workers, like Yadsie Urbanowicz, stand ready to help a repentant runaway husband or a worried immigrant who can’t pronounce “Canada”
AROUND the turn of the century it was considered the height of wit and daring for a young blade to dash up to the woman in the sober garb of the Travellers Aid Society and anxiously enquire, “Do you save girls?”
When she nodded it was his cue to leer, “Good! Save one for me!”
Today’s hard-pressed Travellers Aid workers sometimes wish all they had to do was “save girls.” For times have changed in fifty years. The original Canadian Travellers Aid force—two YWCA workers in Quebec City and Vancouver in 1897 to guide young immigrant girls—wouldn’t recognize their organization today. This year, as one hundred and ten Travellers Aid Societies in the United States celebrate their centennial and an international convention gets under way in New Zealand, the familiar global white lamp of the society shines in twenty-one Canadian communities from coast to coast. It signals help not only to damsels in distress, but to all troubled travelers of every race and hue.
Are you a distraught father whose small son has emptied his penny bank and run away from home? Ten to one the Travellers Aid will spot him before you know he’s gone.
Are you a harassed mother with a baby in arms, two small children clinging to your knees and facing an unexpected three-hour stopover between trains? The Travellers Aid will ease the strain with a cookie for the baby and a promise to mind the other children while you go for a cup of tea.
Are you a displaced person, new to Canada and without a word of English, whose friend has failed to meet your train? The Travellers Aid will speak to you sympathetically in your own language and locate your friend.
Do you want to know what time the train for Moose Jaw arrives, whether there’s a diner on the Trans-Canada, where the washroom is, or how to find a respectable room in a new city? The Travellers Aid knows all the answers. Last year, in Toronto alone, 1,970 travelers found help at the sign of the white globe.
Realizing how right an American psychiatrist was when he recently stated, “The anonymity of a bus or railroad terminal attracts hundreds of bewildered, frightened, sick, troubled people,”
Travellers Aid renders help of all kinds. At one time or another in the past it has:
• Traced a mentally ill American society girl who claimed that she had an appointment with the devil on Mount Zion and couldn’t find her way there.
• Brought back a repentant husband who had deserted his wife and fled to the U. S., where he had lost his money to a sharpie and become stranded.
• Helped the humiliated family of a chronically alcoholic young man to recognize their son’s illness and have him properly treated.
Nothing is too big for the society to tackle. During the Second World War two hundred Royal Air Force wives were stranded in Montreal with their children. The society was able to arrange beds for them in the auditorium of a large insurance company. Recently a boy from rural Ontario went to the society’s desk in Toronto and said he was trying to find a Mrs. Henderson—“my sister works for her.” He didn’t know the woman’s first name or address. The bureau found her by phoning every Henderson in the book.
One hot summer day a frantic young mother
carrying a baby dashed up to a Travellers Aid worker and shouted hysterically, “The baby’s formula! I’ve left it at home and the train’s leaving in a few minutes.” Home was a bungalow in the suburbs. The Travellers Aid worker phoned a neighbor who crawled into the bungalow through an open cellar window, found the written formula in the kitchen and rushed it to the station in a taxi in the nick of time.
When an English girl on her first trip across Canada found she was to pass through “a dreadful debauched sort of place called Whiskey Gap,” the Toronto branch of the society was able to assure her the Alberta town wasn’t all its name implied. When a dear little old lady in white gloves and shiny shoes insisted on sitting day after day on a bench outside the Montreal office, stubbornly waiting for a senator who was twenty years dead, the society did all it could to make her comfortable.
Quick Aid for a Wayward Girl
The Travellers Aid got its start in the U. S. one hundred years ago when a mayor of St. Louis left $600,000 in his will “to furnish relief to all poor immigrants and travelers coming to St. Louis on their way to settle in the west.” In 1897 the society started its work in Canada with the aforementioned two YWCA workers in Quebec City and Vancouver. In seventeen Canadian communities today Travellers Aid is still a YWCA service, maintained by Y funds and often located in Y hostels. In Toronto and Lethbridge the organization functions independent of the YWCA; in Montreal and Fort William it is in a state of transition. Toronto’s executive director, Mrs. Margot Boyd, points with pride to the first Travellers Aid Association in Canada to operate as a recognized social agency, staffed by graduate social workers, directed by a citizens’ board and financed largely by the local Community Chest.
Often the Travellers Aid steps in at a critical moment in someone’s life. In Quebec City a worker came upon a penniless young woman loitering in the railway station and found she was a Montreal waitress who, with a girl friend, had accepted the casual invitation of two strange young men to go to Quebec for a gay week end. They had emptied several bottles on the way and now the girl friend had disappeared with the men, taking all the money with her. The Travellers Aid worker helped the girl to put through a phone call to her family for funds and put her on the evening train for Montreal.
One of the hardest tasks ever to face Miss Yadsie Urbanowicz, port worker for the Travellers Aid in Montreal, was to tell an elderly Latvian woman that her husband, who had just stepped off the boat from the old country, had died. The aged couple had been brought to Canada by their children who lived in the west. No sooner had the husband stepped on Canadian soil than he collapsed. There, in a wheelchair, he looked for all the world as if he had fallen peacefully asleep, and there, on a bench at the dock, sat his wife, staring blankly at him and not understanding a word said by anyone. A doctor pronounced the man dead and Yadsie Urbanowicz, speaking as gently as possible in the woman’s own language, broke the news to her.
“When she heard me speak Latvian, tears came into her eyes and she hugged me,” Yadsie recalls. “I’m afraid I was close to tears myself. I promised her I’d find her a friendly Latvian family who’d take her in for a few days until the children arrived to claim their father’s body. When they did arrive they decided to cremate him and keep his ashes in a jar, for the old man had promised his wife when they left Latvia, ‘Someday, when things are brighter in Europe, we will come back,’ and they wanted to take his ashes back with them if that day ever came.”
A year later a letter arrived from the west. The old mother wrote that she was well and learning to like Canada. “You are especially close to me because you shared my hour of grief,” she wrote the Travellers Aid worker. “I will never forget you.”
For that matter, nobody who meets Yadsie
Urbanowicz ever forgets her. A grey-haired, tireless little woman with a small frame and a big heart, she is easily the most colorful Travellers Aid representative in Canada. Born and raised in pre-revolutionary Russia, she escaped from that country first to Latvia, then to Canada. She has been port worker in Montreal for twenty years, where, with a working knowledge of twelve languages, a fervent need to help her fellow beings and a determination to keep going until she drops, sbe is ideally cast as an interpreter.
“My days,” Yadsie said recently, “can be roughly divided into busy days and not-so-busy days.”
One busy day last winter started at 11 p.m. when a trainload of displaced persons was due at Windsor Station, followed by a second train at 3 a.m. at Central Station, a ship docking at 6 a.m. and a bus leaving Montreal at 8 a.m. for St. Paul TErmite, a stopping place for new Canadians brought to this country by the Department of Labor. Yadsie made it her business to catch them all.
She and her fellow workers had been busy for days performing the dozens of small services which accompany the settling of a stranger in a new country. At 10.30 she hurried over to Windsor Station to find an air of excited expectancy in the crowd of waiting relatives. The train was two hours late, but Yadsie settled down to wait with the others, giving out information in three or four languages, assuring everyone that everything was going to be all right. When the gates opened and the newcomers poured in, problems began for the Travellers Aid.
A big red-haired Ukrainian, bound for the Ontario bush, was worried because his family, following him in the summer, couldn’t speak English, and he wouldn’t be able to leave his job to meet them. What would happen to them in Montreal? Miss Urbanowicz promised to meet
them and reroute them safely to his new address.
A pretty young woman confided that she had promised her fiancé she would arrange his entry to Canada after she was settled, but according to regulations she would have to marry him within a month of his arrival. Sbe wasn’t sure she wanted to. Yadsie suggested they talk the matter over the following week and see if the young man could be brought to Canada under some other arrangement., so the couple could get to know each other better before planning marriage.
The questions were endless and Yadsie Urbanowicz had heard them hundreds of times before. As she said, “They may be old questions to me, but they’re new and terribly important to the people asking them.”
At 2 a.m. the station was deserted and Yadsie decided to go home for an hour’s nap before meeting the next train. She had barely time to dust the sheets before her alarm rang her out into the empty streets again.
Once, during a nocturnal expedition, she was dismayed to find two suspicious young men loitering in the corridor of her apartment building. She had to hurry on, but when she returned six hours later she found her apartment had been ransacked. “What could I have done?” she asks. “The Aquitania was due in half an hour.”
Back in Central Station after her nap Yadsie found the train just pulling in. More problems, more questions, more answers. Then a cup of coffee in an all-night stand. “Sometimes I have ten cups of coffee a day; sometimes I haven’t time for one,” she confides. Then down to the docks where a Dutch boat was due. It arrived and once more Yadsie met people with smiles, answers and help. Eight o’clock found her on the bus bound for St. Paul, where she spent the rest of the day translating the needs and wants of new DPs. She returned home at 9.30 that evening, just in time for a couple of interviews before bed.
Last year the Travellers Aid in Montreal made seventeen of these excursions to St. Paul, met 175 ships and 223 trains, gave assistance to 14,818 persons and helped 80,474 people with information and direction services.
A not-so-busy day for Yadsie Urbanowicz is when no special trains or boats are scheduled and she can spend the day with fellow workers interviewing people in her office. Because of her languages, and also because she is the official Montreal representative of the International Refugee Organization, most of her interviews are with DPs. She says, “I was the first person they talked to in this country, so naturally they come to me when anything worries them.”
Thus in a morning she may interview a housewife who begs somebody to “find out why Maria cries all the time”; a sullen domestic who complains her mistress has nailed a fifteen-minute schedule on the kitchen wall and stands around with a watch in her hand, timing each job; a pretty Estonian waitress who wants Miss Urbanowicz’ advice on whether she should buy a fur coat on credit.
Once Yadsie made a routine telephone call to a DP who had settled in Montreal to tell him that his old-country fiancée was arriving by boat the following week. Would he be sure to meet her at the docks? A pause, then a male voice blurted, “But what shall I do? I married somebody else last month !”
It was up to Yadsie not only to meet the boat and tell a prospective bride that her wedding was off, but also to help the unhappy girl face up to her first year alone in Canada with neither fiancé, family nor friends. She said afterwards, “I’d rather have been jilted myself.”
The Old Lady Who Lived at Sea
Where a problem is out of her province Yadsie refers it to the proper agency. Last year the Montreal Travellers Aid passed on 411 of these cases. However, often an agency will refer a case right back to her. The Montreal employment office has been known to telephone, “We’re sending Elsa over to you. She’s unhappy and depressed, but there’s nothing we can do about it. You have a good mother-and-daughter talk with her.” Now Yadsie refers affectionately to DP domestics as “my daughters.” When one of them married not long ago and later had a daughter, she sent the Travellers Aid worker a greeting card, “Happy Easter, Grandmother!” Yadsie was delighted.
The Montreal office of Travellers Aid is not entirely occupied with new Canadians. While port worker Urbanowicz flits from train to boat and back again, other representatives are on station duty, prepared to deal with everything from runaway children to unmarried mothers and from alcoholic husbands to senile old people with wanderlust.
One woman known to every Travellers Aid desk across Canada a few years ago had spent most of her savings on nine trans-Atlantic trips and was planning a tenth when the society stepped in and urged her family to assume responsibility for her, since she liad
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suffered several heart attacks on her travels and was spending her money recklessly with no hope of maintenance later on. Her case reminded workers of an old man in the U. S. who would light out on the first train every time his daughter-in-law suggested a bath and land at the nearest Travellers Aid. (He was usually given a good-natured scolding and sent home.)
The Travellers Aid also has a “chain service” for routing a traveler from the east coast clear out to the west coast, with care at each stopover. Many people and organizations use the servicerailway officials, police, welfare workers, the WCTU, the Red Cross, American Travellers Aid societies, and strangers who have heard of the service and know someone in need of help.
In one case an old woman looking for work limped twenty miles into Montreal on an ulcerated leg. Travellers Aid workers learned she had been brought from England by her son and daughter-in-law, who lived in rural Quebec, on the understanding that when she wanted to return home they would arrange passage. When another son in England wrote he was leaving for Korea, and she asked her daughterin-law for the promised passage home to say good-hy to him, it was refused. So she had hiked to Montreal to beg the Travellers Aid to help her find employment so she could earn her boat fare home.
When a doctor stated the woman was in no condition to work, and several letters to the son and daughterin-law brought no reply, Travellers Aid got busy. A daughter in England was
contacted; she sold her wedding ring and sent the money, but it was still not enough. Finally the steamship company was approached and agreed to co-operate. Travellers’ Aid sent the woman on her way and she arrived in England in time to kiss her soldier son good-by.
Occasionally the Travellers Aid does its job too well. Last summer a small boy on his way to visit his grandmother in rural Alberta was handed over to the Winnipeg society on a twelve-hour stopover. What to do with the lad? A bright Travellers Aid girl took him to a children’s camp, where he swam, ran races, joined in a singsong and had such a fine time that he showed no inclination to continue his journey. Only by promising him another visit to camp on his return trip could the Travellers Aid persuade him to get on the train taking him to his waiting grandmother. -g