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From Putumayo to Neerlandia

It was a very cold day in November when I (Cenaida) and six of my children arrived in Edmonton from Ecuador. Looking outside we saw nothing but white. We were told it was -40 C. It was extremely cold! We were tired, hungry, and scared. I constantly prayed, “God you know my life. Take care of my kids.”

First, let me tell you how we came to be refugees. In Putumayo, Colombia, we were very scared of the national army as well as the rebels. They would enter our homes, hold us at gun point and accuse us of siding with the enemy, killing whoever they wanted to. Late in the year 2000, just before Christmas, a letter arrived in our town, stating that a gift was arriving for everyone: death. They were going to kill everyone in our town like dogs. This didn’t happen, but for the safety of my children we left for Ecuador. It was with sadness that we left behind my eldest daughter, my mother, and siblings.

Arriving in Santo Domingo, Ecuador, life got a lot harder as my husband left the family soon after our arrival. To our dismay my youngest son, Gustavo, was born with cerebral palsy. He was often sick. While I was breastfeeding, my daughter Diana and son Edwin took odd jobs that barely made enough to feed all of the children. We sold everything of value from our home to help us. As soon as I could, to provide for my family, I would work washing laundry, work in restaurants and cleaned houses for rich families. Whenever Gustavo was sick, Diana would cover for me.

When Gustavo was around a year and a half, he begun therapy at Fe y Luz (Faith and Light) foundation. There, we learned about becoming refugees and we were directed to the offices for refugees. This foundation gave us refugee forms, aided us with some food. It wasn’t much, but it sure was a big help! The same foundation helped people of extreme needs to immigrate to better countries. My family qualified under “extreme needs” because of Gustavo. At first, they wanted to send us to Brazil; however I refused because Brazil was in the same economic condition us Ecuador. Then, they offered us Holland. It was very tempting but it didn’t seem right either. Frustrated, they asked us where we wanted to go. They told me that anyone else in our place would have left in a heartbeat. Without knowing any better, I stated that I wanted to live in Canada. Very soon after my decision, a social worker from Toronto, Canada went to Ecuador and interviewed us. My family was sponsored under the JAZZ program, a two year commitment by the government and private group to support us. I worried because I didn’t truly know where we were going to end up. The last family I worked for was very kind to my family and me. They told me if Canada was not good, to come back. They offered to pay for the flights and provide me with a job.

We left Quito, Ecuador at 6 pm on November 27, 2006. Two hours later we arrived in Lima, Peru and had to wait until 5 am to board the flight to Toronto. My kids were very excited to be in a plane again. They looked through the window and pointed at the small islands that could be spotted below. In Toronto we were provided with winter boots and jackets. Shortly after, we boarded the next plane to Edmonton, our final destination. Because of the weather there was no one to meet us, except a taxi driver that communicated with us through pointing. He guided us to his vehicle and drove us to a motel. The rooms were extremely hot; our throats were as dry as they could get. We didn’t know how to turn the heat down or how to ask him to do it for us. Our first meal in Canada was a cup fruit, chocolate bars and a can of coke. The next day Diana and Edwin went looking for some breakfast; happily they came back with some food. It wasn’t too long before we heard a knock on the door and words we understood. Two social workers arrived, father and daughter, to help us with some papers and they took us out for lunch.

December 1, two days later, we were brought to a house where we waited for our Neerlandian sponsors. We were separated in to two vehicles which felt awful. All I could do was search for the other vehicle and pray that my kids were fine. After two hours of travelling we ALL arrived in Neerlandia and stepped into our new home. We were welcomed by more committee members who had prepared soup and buns (something new for us). Tania cried because all the food she saw was not familiar so not to her liking. Exploring our new home, we found every room beautiful! The fridge and cupboards were stuffed with food, including rice. We were very happy and thankful.

The next day people took us shopping at the local co-op. At first we bought food that looked good but didn’t taste as good as we had hoped. In the beginning rice, eggs, beans, and some meat were our regular foods. Day by day we were taken to new places. We visited the school where all my kids would attend, meeting the teachers and principal. We were also taken to the dentist and family doctor. Gustavo went everywhere with us, even in the cold days, because I trusted nobody. Eventually we were brought back to Edmonton, where we met some more doctors and specialist that would tend to Gustavo’s needs. People were always happy to help us; they would bring us wherever we wanted or needed to go. On Sundays we attended the Neerlandia church, it was not a Catholic church like we were used to, but God is everywhere so we made custom to attend every Sunday.

During the first year, in spite of how nice people were to our family, I felt overwhelmed and depressed. There was so much to learn and being home alone didn’t help. With the arrival of summer I started to feel better and enjoyed gardening and raising some chickens. The kids began playing outside, going for long bike rides and exploring the bush. They made great memories!

Our friends from Neerlandia became our family and stayed that way even when we made the move to Barrhead. The kids were growing older and the house was getting too small. Also, the Barrhead Elementary School had a better facility to meet Gustavo’s needs. The people from the Neerlandia community had always been there for us even when my mother passed away many came to our home and along with us, watched my mother’s funeral on TV.

I thank God every day for the wonderful opportunity to move to Canada. Currently, Diana lives in Edmonton. She went to college and has a job, and is engaged. Edwin also has been attending school for carpentry and works up North for an oil company. Tania is graduating from high school and getting married in September. Jazmin, Kevin, and Gustavo are attending school. Furthermore, recently we all became Canadians and we’re very grateful. As for me, I’m very happy to be surrounded by such wonderful friends and know that my kids have a bright future ahead.

[Image: Flickr user Knows Photos]

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