Country of Origin:
Human Rights & Social Justice, Refugee Experiences
Enrique remembers the day he arrived in Canada, and what prompted him to leave El Salvador. Life as a refugee was not easy as first, but Enrique worked hard to learn English, and adapt to Canadian life.
My name is Enrique Robert. I arrived in Canada on a very cold morning of 1990. January 19, 1990. It was not planned like that, but that was also my birthday – my thirty-fourth birthday to be exact. We had left our homeland El Salvador a week earlier, as my life and the life of my loved ones were threatened by the death squad, and the army in El Salvador. The Canadian government offered me shelter, but because of the state of the war at that time we didn’t have a plane to leave on. The airport was off-limits to us. So we crossed the border into the neighbouring country, Guatemala, and from there the Canadian government literally took charge and helped us with visas and put us on a plane from Guatemala to Miami, and Miami to Toronto.
The arrival, as stressful as it was, also relieved some of the pressure of the fear for our safety. Traveling with me was another family and my three children, and they were very little. My youngest son was five, my daughter was six and my eldest son was eight. We landed in a refugee shelter on Jarvis St. in Toronto, and we lived there for a couple of months. Then we moved to an apartment and life in Toronto began.
Safety was not an issue anymore, but to survive, to stave, learn the language, employment, food… all that. Even the weather, as I have said in the past, the cold weather for someone who comes from El Salvador where it is summer all year, was not easy to handle. But we did have some help. We did have friends that supported us and gave us shelter. I went to school to learn English as a Second Language like any other seven year old kid goes to learn their ABCs – singing “now I know my ABCs…” and stuff like that. Anyhow, the story of learning English is no different than anyone in Canada, except that I was already thirty-four and had three children. One of my most important issues was not to become dependent on my own children. One of the phenomena that many immigrants suffer here is that we learn the language slower than our own kids, and we start depending on them to translate for us. So I didn’t want to do that, because I was aware and it was clear that my children needed my support. It was a challenge to learn.
My first earned money was shoveling the snow a block away from the rooming house where I was living. From that time, fourteen or fifteen years ago, I have done a lot. I’m an attorney by training with a Masters degree in criminology and labour law, with a specialization in human rights. I clearly do not practice law, but I became a community activist, a community development worker. I work in housing for people with no home. I work in shelters for the homeless. I became not only a Canadian and a Torontonian, but I became an activist of my new country and my new realty. And now I am the Executive Director of the Social Planning Council in Peterborough.