Refugees: A Personal Story
by Gustavo Neme L
Translated by Rev. Jack Costello
A Personal Story
When Gustavo and Sandra were trying to find a safe place for themselves and their children, they never imagined that they would discover that “place” within an unknown organization called Romero House – which offered not just security but companionship and a real sharing of their journey.
Sandra vividly remembers the day their prayers were answered. “After waiting four weeks the interview day finally came. The 18th of September was the most overcast day I had ever seen! But the happiness on the faces of my children and my husband as soon as we got across the border into Canada was in total contrast to the greyness of the day. It was the light of hope that shone out of all of us. On our way to Toronto we made a phone call, which gave us huge joy. They told us that Romero House would be able to accept us.”
In a quiet voice, Gustavo adds, “The open arms helping us to find our way through the social system gave us the feeling of the possibility of creating a home. Our good fortune of having been part of Romero House made the whole process of arriving as a refugee much easier.”
Sandra and Gustavo are professionals from Colombia. He is a business administrator with wide experience in social development. She is a psychologist. Since the Refugee Board (IRB) in Toronto accepted their claim, Sandra has worked at improving her English and doing volunteer work in the area of social psychology, while Gustavo – who manages well in a variety of languages – has found a perfect fit as the Outreach Worker for Romero House.
Common Difficulties for Refugees
The refugee process appears simple when you read the web-page of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). But for many, this process seems endless and stressful. Even without the language barrier, it is hard to find detailed information on the legal procedures required for making a refugee claim and getting settled in this new society.
Many refugees feel fear and danger while staying at different shelters – negative feelings caused by traumatic experiences in their past. But the warm reception offered by Romero House gives its residents feelings of security and of truly “being at home.”
Romero House is a non-profit, charitable organization founded in 1991 “to provide transitional housing and personal accompaniment” for those in the process of adapting to Canada”. It serves refugee claimants from anywhere in the world. The organization was named in recognition of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 by a government-hired thug because of his open opposition to the oppression and killing of the poor in El Salvador.
Mary Jo Leddy, the Director of Romero House is a committed supporter of human rights. She has written several books on refugees and issues of migration. She teaches philosophy and theology at the University of Toronto and is a visiting professor at numerous Canadian and US universities. She was awarded the Order of Canada for her humanitarian work.
Transitional Housing - The Feeling of Home and Community
When residents arrive at Romero House, they are received by a team of interns who help them settle into their new home, then take them on a “tour” of the other houses to introduce them to the other families living there.
The four houses of Romero House are divided into apartments of one, two or three rooms, equipped with independent bathroom and bedroom, a kitchen that may be independent or shared, and shared telephone and laundry room. One residence has a wheelchair entrance.
The interns are volunteers, recent university graduates who devote a year of their lives to the refugees of Romero House. The interns (as well as Director Leddy herself) live in the houses. With this daily closeness, they can offer help with the physical necessities of life and with the moral, social and recreational support that each family requires.
“At the beginning Romero House felt strange,” said Tenzin who comes from Tibet. “But when I saw that all the refugees shared the same situation; that made me feel that we were together... and after that I felt safe and secure.”
Throughout life at Romero House, there is a steady stream of celebrations and activities that pull residents together as a community: feast days, birthdays, religious liturgies, celebrating together when claimants receive a positive decision, and, perhaps biggest of all, the annual week-long camp. There is also a series of learning activities such as the home-work club for the children, one-on-one tutoring in English for adults and the women’s group which has met in mutual support over many years.
One important aspect of Romero House is the legal direction for refugee claimants. Some individuals and organizations direct claimants poorly, even falsely, in preparing their refugee claim and the process leading up to the hearing. This can be not only financially costly; it can prejudice the whole legal case in the eyes of the IRB.
Romero House has access to a pool of first-class immigration lawyers. Moreover, residents are given careful advice with regard to obtaining legal aid and other assistance provided by the government such as welfare and academic support for their children.
If a claimant receives a negative judgment from the IRB, Romero House follows up with new legal alternatives. Part of the “accompaniment” down this rocky road takes the form of keeping in touch, launching social actions of various kinds, and assembling a support group calling for a re-consideration of the judgment.
Donations and services
Romero House welcomes individuals or groups who would like to make a financial donation or a gift-in-kind to their work. They also offer a welcome to those who are in need of their help. You can contact Romero House by phone at (416) 763-1303, through their web-page at or by sending an email to Or, even better, you can drop by the Romero Centre at 1558 Bloor Street West – a few steps west of the Dundas West subway station.