Joan Sam didn’t know anything about Canada before she arrived, but today she’s not only embraced her life, but she’s also become a source for local history, well architecture at least, in her new city as well.

Joan and her son Oliver came to Canada in 2004 in an effort to escape the civil war in her west African home of Sierra Leone. Actually, her first attempt at escape saw her move to Gambia, where she stayed for ten years before coming to Canada with Oliver, her sister and her mother.

As for her move to London, well, Joan didn’t actually know she was coming to the Forest City until she was on the highway after landing in Toronto.

“Usually you apply through the United Nations and they give you different countries, Australia, the United States, Sweden, Canada . . . and you fill out an application and wherever they send you is where you go,” she said. “When we got back our form it stated Toronto, Canada. That was on our flight ticket and the form. Then we’re on the Robert Q and they said we’re heading to London; we’re thinking they meant London, England.”

Joan Sam - photo credit Sean Meyer.

Joan Sam - photo credit Sean Meyer.

Joan and her son, who was four years old at the time, arrived in London — yes, the Ontario one — in September and she soon was enrolled at Wheable Adult Education Centre, which was part of the immigration process so as to take English as a second language.

Even though it was late spring, it still took Joan a while to get comfortable with the local weather, particularly once that pesky Canadian winter showed up.

Joan jokes she fell “just so many times” walking in the snow, but she has many other memories of that first winter.

She’d be constantly taking pictures of winter scenes and sending them back home — on MSN Messenger, back in the day — to give friends and family at least some idea of what winter in Canada was like.

“The snow boots were quite heavy for me. My son was fine, but it was harder for me,” she said. “I remember the first time it was really cold. I remember we dressed up, the wind was blowing, and we had to feel our faces to see if something was still there. We thought we were dressed up warm enough, but it was awful.”

Weather aside, although she would eventually grow accustomed to the cold, Joan was settling into her new life and got involved at a local church.

Between taking part in events at Wheable and the church, Joan made new friends and slowly felt more and more comfortable.

One day, some four years ago, she overheard a young woman talking in a group of friends about how she missed taking walks with her dad. They used to take pictures together and would share them in a memory book.

That overheard conversation got Joan thinking and so she came home and said to her son she was going to do something to showcase the Victorian architecture of London.

In the years since — and despite some people questioning her choice of subject matter — Joan has established a strong social media presence, sharing pictures of old homes and historical figures, and starting conversations about the importance of local history.

Helping people make connections to the city’s past helped Joan become further involved in the wider community.

“People would send me direct messages on Twitter saying thank you,” she said. “That really motivated me to get more involved. I have the life I could never have imagined. The number of people I’ve met in the city is mind-blowing.”