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December 9, 2022
GUEST BLOG: Maritza shares her story of escaping Colombia and coming to Canada as a refugee, and how her experience – and the support she received from United Way-funded programs – helped her rebuild her life. After finding a new job in her professional field in Canada, she’s inspired to share her story of success and give back to her community as a member of Women United.
NOTE: This article contains themes of violence, oppression, and discrimination. If this is a difficult subject for you and you need support, contact 211 Alberta for resources in your area.
Have you ever stopped for a second and thought about what it means to feel safe in the country you live in?
It means waking up in the morning knowing that you live in a safe country you can call home, and how much happiness and stability this brings to you and your family’s life. Feeling safe in a country means that your life is free of risk of injury and danger.
Now let me tell you my story.
In 2000, I was living in Colombia, raising my two children with my then-husband when his father was kidnapped. Our family was targeted in the aftermath, and one of the left-wing groups in Colombia attempted to come after my kids, who were two and five at the time.
Our lives changed overnight. We had built successful careers and had financial stability in Colombia but decided to leave everything behind for the safety of our kids.
Our family was in grave danger and our only path to safety was to flee our home and leave Colombia as quickly as possible.
First, we went to the United States, where I have family who opened their house to us.
We were scared, with no English at all and with limited money, leaving our beloved country and family behind. Looking for a safe place for our kids to build their life, we applied for asylum in the U.S.
Then September 11th happened.
All asylum cases in the US were denied. Not only that, but we also felt persecuted again. The U.S. lost all trust in immigrants. Believe me, persecution is something you never want to feel.
In 2004, we decided to come to Canada as refugees in an effort to restart our lives for a second time. We spent every penny we had on lawyers’ fees for our asylum process in the States, and to simply survive.
I always imagined that, when we crossed the border, there would be soldiers with rifles pointed at us, so you can imagine how scared I was. But at the same time, I was looking forward to it.
We waited 17 days in a tent in a campsite during a very cold beginning of May before we were called to cross the border into Canada. To our greatest surprise, the person who welcomed us into the country was a female immigration officer with the most warmth and an amazing smile I’ll never forget.
We lived in a shelter in London, Ontario for about three months. After this, we moved into two different apartments, improving our lives each time. That first year we didn’t have any food for Thanksgiving. The night before, our kids’ school left a hamper on our doorstep with everything for a Thanksgiving dinner. I remember this as the happiest day of our first year in Canada.
I felt lonely, but we never gave up and I always kept a positive attitude. We accessed the food bank, which is a United Way-funded agency, for about three years until we had enough money to survive on our own. We went to school to learn English and we learned how to write a resumé and how to look for a job. Our jobs were mainly low-wage labour jobs, so our shopping for the first three years was at second-hand stores.
During this process, one of the hardest decisions we made was to not have any social interaction with the Latin community so we could really immerse ourselves in the English language to learn it faster and find jobs in our professions again.
Every day was a challenge for us, but we faced it and overcame it.
The support of social agencies at the start of our journey in this country marked our path to success. Because of them, we had food on our table when we didn’t have enough money to buy it. We got winter coats for our kids. We learned the resumé style and the job interview process used in Canada (which is different than Colombia). Through one of these social agencies we were also matched with a Canadian family who ‘adopted’ us and taught us so much about the Canadian way of life.
Years later, I learned some of these agencies were supported by United Way. As a newcomer, I can’t impress upon you enough how important these programs and services are in supporting newcomers trying to create a life and a home in a new country. While my family was supported by United Ways in Ontario during our first years in Canada, many similar services and programs are also supported by United Way of the Alberta Capital Region. I can tell you from personal experience that it makes all the difference in the world.
Despite our struggles, we looked at our kids every night before going to bed and knew it was worth it. All of this was worth waking up the next day safe from violence and persecution.
In 2007, my then-husband found a job in his field in Edmonton and his company moved us here. I found a job in my professional field soon after. In Edmonton, we found friends that became our family and who we dearly love.
Five years later — after spending twelve years away — we were able to go back to Colombia to show our kids their roots, and for them to experience what family love means. When we were on our way back to Canada, they expressed two things that marked their lives.
First they said, “I have never felt so loved by many.” They were referring to the love of their family. And second they said, “I will never ever take for granted what I have in Canada.”
Today, my two kids are successful professionals with kind hearts, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.
My heart will never find the way to properly thank our many “guardian angels” for the love, company, help, guidance, and support that was given to my family and me during those initial years.
I believe everything happens for a reason. My positive attitude toward life, my faith, my strong moral and family principles, and most of all, with the immense love for my kids that brought me to this amazing country.
I can tell you that my sense of gratitude is so immense that the best way for me to express it is by giving back. Giving back in even the smallest ways is how I say “thank you, Canada” for opening your doors to my family and me when we needed it most.
I’ve started my life from scratch four times (if I count my divorce, which happened after we moved to Edmonton), and I have so much to tell all women to encourage them to never give up. This is why I’ve joined United Way’s Women United initiative.
Women United is an opportunity for community-minded people to come together and take action to support women and girls who are experiencing poverty or at risk of falling into poverty. Because yes, when I moved to Canada and during the first three years, I was in poverty and at risk of staying in poverty. Based on statistics, there are more women in our community in poverty than men; by helping a woman you help an entire family.
Today, I’d like to invite you to consider supporting Women United and United Way’s work to ensure that no one in our community is left behind through this challenging time.
Your donation to United Way will support life-changing programs and services that help thousands of people — just like me and my family.
And by supporting Women United, you’ll be connected to a group of changemakers that are making a difference in the lives of women and girls experiencing poverty.
You too can be a guardian angel for someone in need.
It’s the season of friendship, generosity, magic, and goodwill toward all. As you’re making a list and checking it twice, consider adding “a stronger and more resilient community” by supporting United Way of the Alberta Capital Region.
You can make this holiday season warm and bright for thousands of people in need. Help fill the Fort Edmonton Park train with Coats for Kids & Families donations at The Edmonton Christmas Market.
United Way of the Alberta Capital Region is rallying residents of the metropolitan region to support our most vulnerable community members during a season of urgent need.