Liliana Angel has been the Office Administrator of Mill Woods United Church since February 2018. Below is a reflection she gave on Nov. 24, 2019 about her experience as a refugee who arrived in Edmonton from Colombia in 2009.
My name is Liliana Angel, and my daughter Daniela Cardona is here with me today to share our story of how we came to Canada under the refugee program. I want to go a few years back so I can tell you a little bit about our lives back in Colombia before moving to Canada in February 2009.
I graduated from law school in 1997, and a few years later I decided to go back to school to achieve a degree in commercial management. While I was back in school I met the person who would become my life partner.
The guerilla kidnapped him while he was working at one of the farms he used to manage, and after a month we finally found out what happened to him, who had him and how much they were asking for, to let him go. However, neither his family or I could ever gather up the exorbitant amount of money they were asking for, so he, himself had to negotiate with the guerilla people a different amount that he would pay for his own freedom.
They released him in a small town close to the city we were living in with enough money to take a bus home as well as with a cellphone that only received calls. When he was finally back home, he told the story of what happened in those seven months of captivity. He also told us that he negotiated a different amount as well as having to set a monthly payment until the whole amount was completely paid off to them. That’s why we did every month until we paid off the whole amount asked by the guerrillas, though after we completed this payment, they kept calling to that cellphone they gave him, asking for even more money. And when we told them that we didn’t have the means to pay more, they threated us with kidnapping again but this time, me or my daughter and to make the threat more legit, they described perfectly our daily routines outside the home, as well as what places we are usually at. So at that moment we knew they were serious about their threats.
We applied for refugee in three countries, and Canada accepted our application. We were coming mentally prepared for the changes in our economy, so we knew that once we arrived, we had to find jobs, but jobs that we have never done back in Colombia. That’s is why the process of adaptation in that regard was a bit easier.
We arrived in Canada on February 2009, leaving everything we knew behind Close your eyes for a second and try to imagine leaving your families, friends, country, schools, and everything that you knew as home so you could stay alive and free. Moving to a whole new country where they don’t speak your native language, where your university degree is worthless, and you don’t have your family, house, job . . . all you have is the two family members you arrived with.
That is how we immigrants feel when we first arrived.
Under the refugee program, a church sponsored us, though before we arrived here, we couldn’t send any pictures or give any descriptions of who we looked like, for security reasons. The only thing they knew about us is that we were a family of three and they would recognize us at the airport because we would be carrying a plastic bag that had in big letter ONG.
At the airport four women and a man received us with gloves, scarves, tuques, winter jackets and the most important for us at that moment, a big smile and a warm hug. They took us to our new place, an apartment that would become our home in Canada. We had everything that we needed there, even different kinds of foods that the people from the church had cooked for us to have for the next few days (a real blessing).
In the first couple weeks we were very busy since we had to get all the important documents to live here, such as driving licence, health care card, social insurance number, and so on. Then we started ESL classes and Daniela started high school. We always had the support we needed from that congregation to start adapting and getting used to our new life here.
Everything we saw here we thought was beautiful, the city, how organized and clean it was, the way people treated us, specially the patience Canadians had with us when we were trying to communicate in a very broken English. And we also very much enjoyed the peace we felt by knowing that nobody was here to hurt us in any way, we finally felt safe here.
The first year was over and so the economic support from the church that sponsored us, the English classes were also over and we had to give back the apartment we were living in. So, we had to once again adapt to the new circumstances, the new challenges, which was okay because we had each other, it was the three of us in it.
As time went by, emotional, physiological and verbal abuse started from my partner, and it got to the point that my daughter and I no longer wanted to go home. My partner and I went to many couple’s therapy and psychologists, even to the church’s pastor but because we still couldn’t speak good English the process of any of the therapies was even more difficult.
Then out of the blue, my partner left us but right before leaving he made it very clear that my daughter and I were completely prohibited to contact any of the congregation’s member from the church that sponsored us since (according to him) the only helped us because of him and all that he went through with the kidnapping, so we did not have any right to ask them for help.
That is exactly what we did. We never again contacted any member of the congregation. To our surprise, they never contacted neither Daniela or me to know if we were still doing okay, or if we needed help. From that moment on then, Daniela and I figured out by ourselves, with difficulty but we were able to keep going. So, then I started cleaning two houses during the week and on the weekends, I worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. Some days, I would wake up in the early morning around 3 am to go clean a couple of Cineplex’s. Daniela worked whenever she could and helped a little.
By having almost three jobs I was able to provide just the necessary for food but for rent I always struggled more. I applied for a subsidy from the government but my application was denied. Then I applied to go back and take more English classes but my application was also denied. At that time, I was not aware of programs like the food bank nor organizations that helped immigrants like us. So, between my daughter and I, paid the rent, food, and services. We have both experienced moments were people made hateful comments or just pure hate towards us without any real reason, just the fact that we were immigrants.
I still remembered when my daughter told me that the school adviser at her high school, told her literally “Daniela let’s be honest, you wont be able to make it to university of Alberta, why don’t you look into other post secondary institution with easier programs that you can take?” Daniela was looking for guidance from the school adviser to see how to apply to UofA, that’s was her answer to my daughter. Well, now my daughter would be graduating from University of Alberta this coming June from the program she always dream of, political science.
I started working for a church in Sherwood Park, as a custodian, and one day the financial manager at the church decided to give me the opportunity to work as an administrative assistant there. Of course, before giving me the opportunity, he asked me if I knew how to use a computer, and Excel, Word, and other Windows programs. I worked in this position for seven years and I made many positive changes and implemented some new processes since there was no one in the position I was currently in. And even though I worked hard and kept a very positive attitude, there were people in the church that were not happy with me being in the position because I was an immigrant that once cleaned their offices so to now be part of the administrative group in the church was not okay with them. I felt a great amount of pressure because I always thought that if I made the smallest mistake, that would be all they needed to argued that I was not the right fit for that position, but that never happened in those seven years.
The financial manager that gave me the opportunity retired so his position was taken by one of the individuals that was part of the group that didn’t like me there; and that’s when changes came my way. Right a month after, the human resources manager and my immediate boss called me in a meeting to inform me that my position was going to be eliminated in order to adjust the church’s budget (though three weeks after the meeting, the elimination never happened, they found another person for the position and I had to trained her). They gave me two options in the meeting, one was to resign or to go back to my previous position as a custodian. All I could think is that I just spent 7 year of my life as a administrative assistant and now I might have to go back to being a custodian again. I asked them to give me time to think about it and to talk about with my family but their answer was that they needed the answer immediately. So, I decided to stay and go back to my previous custodian position.
That was the hardest year of my life, but because of time, I cannot give all the detail about this situation. But I had to go through the worst humiliations caused by the other custodians and the group of people in the administration that never liked me.
In that year my Dad fell ill and died. And at the end of the year all us custodians were laid off, which led to many hardships but lot of learning.
I missed a lot of important things in my life when I moved to Canada, like the birth of my only nephew, and not being able to see him grow. But I think that the God that I believe in gave me all these hardships to learn and grow and has also given me a wonderful husband just like that prince charming I dreamed of. And I also see how all these situations have shaped my daughter to become a strong woman striving to accomplish her dreams as well as being very sensitive to others’ sufferings and always willing to help us, other people or her friends (and because of that, we’ve had three of her friends living with us because they needed help at that time). So, she and I are now able to enjoy what comes our way, to enjoy the blessings we are given and the lots and little that we have.
Difficult situations could destroy you or build you up to become a better person, to learn that we are valuable and that we have an extraordinary strength to pick up ourselves again and again to keep going. Hardships are life lessons that makes us better people.