Newcomers: Tania’s Story - Working for The New Generation
By Veronica Leonard
When the United Church Refugee Committee read the profile of the Colombian family they were sponsoring, they saw a young professional couple, Luis and Paola, their two year old daughter, Indi, and the grandmother, Tania. None of them spoke English.
“We assumed Tania would stay home and look after Indi while the parents were learning English and getting their careers restarted,” Chairman Lawrence Roche recalled. “Instead she was the first to get work.”
It was no surprise to Paola. Her mother had raised her alone and had to work a lot of jobs to support them. Despite the cost, she encouraged Paola to go to university and take dentistry. To help pay, Tania sold everything, even their furniture, and they both slept on the floor while she was a student.
After graduation, Paola ran a dental clinic in the indigenous community where Luis was a community development worker. Tania worked as Paola’s office administrator. In time, the nature of Luis’s work made him a target for death squads.
Tania doesn’t know who wanted to kill Luis. “There is such a massive scale of social chaos and corruption in Colombia that nobody really knows who is who. There are many illegal groups - guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers – each trying to create social destabilization so that people with better standing get more and the rest get poorer and poorer.”
Luis narrowly escaped when armed men broke into their house looking to kill him. The family fled to Bogota but even there they were threatened. They sought help from the International Red Cross and the National Indigenous Commission and were advised to leave the country. Although Luis was the main target, all the family members were in danger and Tania had to go too.
Tania remembers, “I was scared but excited that we were going to another country and would be safe and free, especially for the next generation of our family, our beautiful Indi.”
Once in Canada, it was important to Tania that both Luis and Paola were able to concentrate on learning English, and so she looked for work to add to the family’s income. She believed the basic English she had picked up at ESL school would be enough to do food preparation work at the casino. It was not a happy choice. She was often the target of ridicule by many of her co-workers who considered her stupid or disabled because she did not understand what they were saying.
“I didn’t think discrimination existed in a developed country, but it does. I received a lot of abuse, but I stayed silent because I’ve learned that work is a fount of life and I should not give up. I needed to prove to myself that I could cope.”
Eventually she told the principal of her language school, who spoke to her employer, and the harassment stopped; however, there were other difficulties. Her shift often ended too late to catch the connecting bus and she had to walk to her apartment after midnight, summer and winter, through some of the roughest areas of the city
When her sponsors worried about her safety, she bravely said “I am from Colombia. You don’t know what dangerous streets are really like.”
Now she admits that it was very scary, “People on the street were not friendly. It was very cold in winter and I was afraid of black ice. So I would walk very quickly, look straight ahead, sing and try not to think about how dangerous it was. I was confident that God is always with me and my family.”
After two and a half stressful years, she left the job and returned to language training. With the support of her teachers, she began to get back her self confidence. Since then she has been working in a hotel laundry. It is physically hard work but she says she feels healthier than ever because of it and can now manage the English needed for her job. Although she is still frightened of answering the phone, she has started to go to events like her workplace Christmas party.
Meanwhile, Paola has taken a dental technician course and currently works in a dental office; getting back into full time dentistry will require a very expensive two year transition program with a waiting list. Luis works in part time jobs while taking Academic Upgrading in sciences. He hopes to get into the water technology course at the community college.
“I am beginning to feel more like the person I was back in Colombia,” Tania says. “I love my family, and they are everything in my life. For them, I believe, I will work until the end of my existence.”
The internet helps Tania talk to family and friends back in Colombia; she might visit some day, but never wants to move back. “I feel safe in Canada and want to learn English and live in this beautiful part of the world that the Creator has offered me.”
Veronica Leonard is a freelance writer living in Southern Ontario who has written a number of articles regarding programs to help newcomers adjust to life in Canada.