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At her lowest, Debra Gall was plagued with panic attacks, anxiety so crippling that she was hospitalized, and she feared leaving her house in South Africa. Now at her best, she is a member of vestry, is taking layreader training, operates a thrift store in her church, and has lots of plans and ideas on doing even more.

The difference, she says, was in moving to Canada. Oh, and discovering the warm welcome that awaits at Anglican churches.

Generations ago, Debra’s grandfather Kean immigrated from Scotland to South Africa, and that is where she was born. Her Roman Catholic parents wanted her to be born at St. Mary’s Hospital at a mission station about a half-hour from their home in Durban. The ride there was interrupted by a traffic delay, which very nearly caused her to be born in the car!

Debra, an only child, had an idyllic childhood. With both parents working, she went to her grandparents’ home every day, where she enjoyed the love and attention they showered on her. 

When her mother thought it was all too much for them, she put Debra in nursery school. That lasted one day. Her grandparents missed her too much.

“My grandmother took me to Disney movies, made me clothes,” she said, smiling at the memories.

Her grandfather loved seeing the big African animals, and he and Debra spent time in the national parks, in the hides, waiting to see them. She learned to be quiet and still in the process.

When she reached school age, Debra attended a convent school — the same one her mother attended. For Grade 5, the family moved to Johannesburg, and returned to Durban for Grade 11. 

It was a big change for Debra, as the school friends she had there in her early years had moved onto new friends. 

To add to her difficulties, she lost both grandparents within six weeks of each other in her final year of high school. It was a mighty blow to a girl who idolized her grandparents. As a result, her school grades were such that she barely squeaked into university.

“I first became politically aware in university,” she said. “I’d been so protected all my life.”

By the 1970s, the world was beginning to sanction South Africa for its political hardline policy of apartheid, where the minority whites ruled and the majority blacks were discriminated against and brutalized.

Part of her education into how her country really operated came from a new friend, Angie.

“She was politically aware, and I became aware of what was wrong, what was happening,” she said. “But I never became an activist. I never put myself in harm’s way like Angie did. I didn’t want to rock the boat.”

After three years, she didn’t want to return to university. At the same time, she had no idea what she wanted to do. She finished her degree by correspondence, and graduated with a BA in English in 1982, still without a plan of what might come next.

Debra described one of many life-altering events that have shaped her path.

“I went to prayer meeting,” she said, where she met a person who worked for South African Airways.

That person encouraged her to apply for training, as the airline was desperate for air hostesses, the named used for flight attendants.
She had to brush up on her Afrikaans, the country’s second language closely related to Flemish. And she took six weeks of training in food serving, safety, and operating in a confined space.

“I worked the internal routes for the first eight months, and then international: Rio, Buenos Aries, New York City, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Zurich, Amsterdam.”

One of the work rules was that an air hostess could not weigh more than 61.6 kilograms. She was weighed before every flight. Was this to control the weight of the plane, or because the airline wanted its hostesses looking fit and trim?

“A bit of both,” she said.

The result was being bumped from international flights, which happened to Debra.

“That was the punishment,” she said. “I got back on, though.”

International flights from South Africa to Europe always flew up the Atlantic Ocean, not over land, necessitating stops in Cape Verde and the Canary Islands. It was on a stop in Cape Verde that a friend introduced her to Tony Gall, a pilot. She’d never seen him before, which she thought strange, but after that initial meeting, he was the pilot on her next three flights.

“He was Catholic, and he’d never been married,” she said. “He ticked all my father’s boxes.”

They met in late 1985 and were married in 1987. Fr. Vaughn, Debra’s lifelong friend, performed the ceremony. Their mothers were best friends, and she and Vaughn were born within days of each other in 1960.

Debra soon became pregnant, and worked until she was five months along. The airline did not want to employ a pregnant air hostess, and she was made to leave. 

Annie was born in 1988, and Patrick in 1991.

“I was home with the children, which is where I wanted to be,” she said.

Many events, both at home and in the world, came together to put an end to white rule in the country. Long-time political prisoner Nelson Mandella was released in 1990. President Frederik W. de Klerk and his party finally saw the need for change, and rescinded all apartheid laws.

“President de Klerk drove it — and it was against everything his past stood for,” said Debra. “There was euphoria.”

While Mandella turned out to be a respected stateman, the country’s first black president and a competent leader, there was still an overwhelming feeling of trepidation. 

People feared a civil war, and their fears were not far-fetched. The white majority was out, the new black leadership was in. Would it go smoothly, or would there be payback?

“We lost a lot of friends to emigration in the 1990s,” said Debra. “They left for a better future.”

While there was no civil war, the feeling that their future was not bright in South Africa was something Debra could not shake. By 1998, they were actively seeking a new country, mainly because Debra’s mental health was profoundly affected by the stress of rampant crime.

“We looked at the UK, and the United States,” said Debra. “The US was too difficult.”

The choice of Canada became clear when they learned that diabetic pilots like Tony, even on insulin, could still fly. They also had friends who had moved to Canada. 

“So Canada came up tops,” said Debra.

They filed their applications and began the wait.

At this time, crime had become so prevalent that Debra could barely function.

“I was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks,” she said. “I was seeing a psychiatrist. I couldn’t leave my home. It was fear. Overwhelming fear. 

“I just couldn’t see [my children’s] future there,” she said. “I didn’t see a way forward. Then Tony’s mother was murdered. That was awful.

“My parents had numerous break-ins. Fortunately all of them were when they weren’t there.”

During all this time, Debra didn’t feel like her faith could sustain her.

“I didn’t feel like I had that support,” she said.

In January 1999, a shocking incident shook her to the core, and was one of those life-changing events that is impossible to forget.

On the day in question, she had gone shopping with her friend, who dropped her off at her home. The kids were in school and Tony was away on a three-day flight assignment.

“I was home alone and the doorbell rang. It was a woman who asked for bread.”

While she was seeing to the needy woman, two men sneaked into her house. The woman was part of the set-up.
When she came back in, she saw the men in her house.

“I looked down the passage and I thought ‘This is it. I’m not going to make it.’”

First they forced her to let a third man in. Then then took her to the bedroom and had her remove a gun — something every South African family had for protection — from the safe. Now they had a gun and the knife they arrived with.

“They tied me up with all of Tony’s ties,” she said. “Then they covered me with a sheet.”

While she was left alone in her bedroom, she thought of what awaited her:  rape, murder, not seeing her children grow up. She listened as they took valuables from the house, including her kitchen pots, and loaded them in her car.

“They were clanging and banging,” she said.

She realized the ties were not tied very tightly, and she worked on getting her hands free. While she did that, she remembered something from her Catholic school days, a prayer every child memorized.

“I just said it over and over,” she said.

Oh angel of God, my guardian dear
To whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side
To light and guard, to rule and guide. 

She managed to get free of her restraints and pressed the panic button in the bedroom. 

“Panic ensued!” she said.

It made a very loud sound that shocked the men and sent them running with only what they had in their pockets — mainly her jewelry and the gun. She spoke to the private security firm the panic button was connect to, and opened the window to yell for help. Her neighbour heard her cries and also called for help.

“They ran, and were gone before everyone arrived,” she said. 

“That’s always been a pivotal moment for me. I saw my end. There were so many stories of those who didn’t make it.”

Tony was able to come home and immediately assured her of one thing: ‘No matter what I have to do, we have to go.’

“Four days later, we got our papers for Canada,” she said. 

They had a medical to pass, and an interview, all of which made them nervous. They arrived at their interview to learn the consular general had left a junior officer in charge, and he was, as Debra put it, ‘aviation-crazy.’ He and Tony talked about flying, and they were in!

Six months after the home invasion, they left South Africa for Canada. Debra’s psychiatrist had given her six months of anxiety medication to last her until she got settled and found a new doctor.

Upon arrival, Debra found that all her medication had been stolen from her luggage.

“Those tablets were like my lifesaver,” she said. 

But the wisdom of a child won the day when Annie, then 11, told her mom, ‘Isn’t the reason for the pills South Africa? We’re not there anymore.’

They arrived in Oakville, Ont. and Debra found a job in a gift shop. A few months later, Tony was flying with Canada 3000.

Unfortunately, the company closed after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Tony got a job teaching at a flight training company. He eventually began training Nav Canada pilots, and Nav Canada, the agency which oversees airports and landing strips in the country, hired him.

It necessitated a move to Ottawa in 2006, but Tony flew all over Canada, testing and certifying airports and aviation equipment in place. He retired in 2018. 

Debra’s parents came to Canada in 2004 to be near their only child. When the family moved to Ottawa, her parents moved as well. 

Debra found a Catholic church for her parents, and “religiously” drove them to church each week. And each week, she would ask, ‘did you meet anyone?’ No, was the answer.

But God would intervene in yet another life-changing way for her parents. They were bicycling in Ottawa and stopped at a beautiful old Anglican church. Parishioners began chatting with them. Then the rector arrived for the service and invited them in to take a look. And so they did, and kept on coming.

“There was no turning back,” said Debra. “It was another of those huge moments. And that’s how I became an Anglican!”

Her parents were accepted into the Anglican church in 2008, on what Debra described as a joyous occasion.

In 2018, Debra and Tony moved to Fredericton, even though her parents remained in Ottawa. Their daughter, Annie, had attended UNB’s law school, which allowed them to become familiar with the city. So when they were looking for a small city in which to retire, Fredericton came to mind. 

Debra’s father became seriously ill in early 2022, during COVID, which meant many long driving trips to Ottawa. 

“My dad was a very important person in my life,” she said. “His passing was another huge moment for me. I felt so desperate and very alone.”

She was comforted to know that his faith became stronger as he aged, and he had his rosary beads under his hospital pillow as he lay dying.

Debra was a good Catholic parent by all accounts. Her children were baptized and confirmed. But by the time the family arrived in Canada, she was taking the kids to church for one reason: duty.

After her father died, the huge hole she felt in her heart and soul was somewhat filled as she sat in the church for his service. Even though it was a very small COVID service, it was meaningful in many ways.

“The Rev. Carolyn Seabrook was like an angel, wafting around, going here and there before the service and checking on us. I sat there with Mom feeling at ease, at peace, like I was being held. I felt comforted. It was a turning point.”

While Debra stayed with her mother a couple of weeks, her mom realized there was nothing for her in Ottawa anymore.

“She woke up one day and said, ‘I’ve decided I’m coming to Fredericton. You can’t be traveling back and forth. You are my family and I need to be with you.’”

Her mom came to visit in April to check things out.

“I took her to Christ Church (Parish) Church,” she said, knowing her mother would need an Anglican church, and it was closest to their home.

“We got the same welcome as Mom and Dad got in Ottawa.”

Parishioners introduced themselves and the word spread. The Rev. John Sharpe was leading that day, and had them stand up in the service to be acknowledged. They felt warmly welcomed.

“When Mom went back to Ottawa, I kept going, to keep that sense of community so it would be a home for her,” said Debra.

As time went on, the Rev. Canon Wandlyn Snelgrove asked Debra to join vestry. She attended confirmation classes to learn about Anglicanism and was received into the Anglican church a year ago.

Since then she’s started a thrift store in the church basement and begun lay reader training. Now she’s researching Taizé with a plan to start one at CCPC. She has a keen eye on the church lawn, wondering if a small community garden might fit there. And she has a few other ideas about how she could contribute to her new church.

“I’m really at home here,” she said of the Parish church. “I love being so involved.”

Her children are forging their own paths forward, Annie as a lawyer in Fredericton, Patrick as an engineer, working for the Aurora Research Institute in Inuvik, NWT.

It’s been 25 years since the most frightening day of her life. Back then, she could barely function due to fear.

“When I was under that sheet, I knew I had to get through this for my children,” she said.

 Today, she is a new person in her adopted country.

“I’ve been grateful every day being here,” she said.

1.   Debra Gall, surrounded with a lifetime's worth of documents and photos from life in South Africa and Canada. McKnight photo

2.  Debra on the day of her first international flight with South African Airlines.

3.  The Galls become Canadian citizens:  Debra, Patrick, Annie and Tony.

4.  Debra with her parents,  Derrick and Nancy Kean, who were received into the Anglican 
Church at Holy Trinity Church, Metcalfe, a suburb of Ottawa, in February 2008. Her parents became 
Anglicans far earlier than Debra did. 
Submitted photos


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