More than 1.2 million refugees traded their home countries for Canada in the past five years. Kendi Martinez, who left the Mexican city of Reynosa in 2007, is one of them. The violence that scares Mexican families was not the biggest threat at home.
“I’m [a] lesbian, and in Mexico it’s not acceptable,” she says. “I had to immigrate to be able to be myself and to find true happiness.”
In Vancouver, Martinez encountered the precious safety and open- mindedness that most residents and visitors can enjoy in Canada. However, “happiness” came with a price. “I had to immigrate and leave everything behind, including my daughter,” she explains. Last January her 12-year-old daughter finally moved to Vancouver to live with Martinez.
Staying apart from her family was just one of many challenges. Finding housing, establishing a contact network and improving her English skills were other obstacles that not only Martinez, but most refugees need to overcome upon their arrival in Canada.
In fact, refugees from Latin America tend to be the ones who usually struggle the most. “Latinos and East Europeans need everything,” summarizes Mario Ayala, director of the Inland Refugee Society of British Columbia (IRS-BC).
The IRS-BC is a non-profit and non- governmental agency that assists families and individuals who seek refuge in Canada. According to Ayala, the agency helps approximately 50 per cent of the refugee claimants in B.C. Ayala is originally from El Salvador. He speaks not only for himself, but also for the thousands of immigrants that he has met in the last decade since he first got involved with the IRS- BC.
According to Ayala, people from Asia and the Middle East who seek asylum in Canada usually have relatives or acquaintances in the country. Many Latinos, on the other hand, lack such connections, leading to the urgent need of accessible housing in their new home.
At the IRS-BC, they can obtain assistance to find housing options according to the welfare rights granted to refugees.
Ayala also identifies the language as another major barrier for Latin Americans in their adaptation process. The IRS-BC tackles that problem by offering English lessons and translation services provided by volunteers.
Andrea, a 29-year-old accountant who prefers not to disclose her last name, illustrates how important it is for refugees to have good English skills. After she left Mexico City to immigrate as a refugee to Canada, she counted on her family’s financial support to go to an English school in Vancouver. “That helped me a lot,”she says.
During her first three years in Vancouver, Andrea also found support in institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (ISS of BC).
“At the beginning, I mostly hung out with people who spoke Spanish, but I soon realized that they seemed to want to take advantage [of] me rather than to help,” she says.
The improvement of Andrea’s English skills was the bridge that connected her with English-speaking groups. Only then could she get a fair position in the local society.
Ayala highlights that the IRSBC provides free assistance to anyone who feels unsafe in their own countries. However, refuge claimants should be prepared for a period of adapting that can last longer than they expect.
Ayala, who has been here since 1992, can attest to that. “I still haven’t completely adapted myself.”