Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Salvadorans come seeking new life, protection

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MANITOBANS have seen two notable waves of Salvadorans come: One group fled persecution during the bloody civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s; A new wave is seeing some temporary foreign workers becoming permanent residents.

My cousin, Mario, his wife and their three daughters were political refugees, welcomed to Canada when the United States closed its doors to them. They left El Salvador in 1980, spending five years in Mexico and the U.S. looking for sanctuary before finally being sponsored here by a multi-denominational group of churches in East Kildonan and Transcona.

I, too, am a refugee, but I fled neither for political nor economic salvation. I left El Salvador in 2000, long after Canada had changed its refugee policy, before the end of the war in 1992. The policy change unfortunately saw many potential refugees denied entrance.

But Canada found room for me, offering me protection from persecution as a gay man.

I left El Salvador because I was unable to live in a country where being openly gay is unacceptable. There have been multiple reports of violence and killings targeting homosexuals and transsexuals. AIDS and LGBT activists receive threats of violence on a regular basis. A 2010 report to the UN human rights committee reveals continued threats of violence against LGBT people and activists and lack of investigation by police in deaths even today.

I work in the area of human rights, and I needed to be able to work in a place where I would be safe. Choosing the right country was easy.

I came to Winnipeg because Mario was here. He and my mother grew up together, and she immediately contacted him and his wife. They welcomed me into their home.

Starting over in a new country wasn't easy. In El Salvador, I was a law student living a comfortable life. When I arrived here, I spoke neither English nor French. As a refugee, I was able to access social assistance benefits until I found a job.

My first job in Canada, at a call centre, came five months after my arrival in Winnipeg. With guidance from Mario, I returned to university to study political science. After two years, I moved to Quebec to learn French and to go back to law school.

After graduation, I travelled widely for work: Guatemala, research of commercial sexual exploitation of children; Washington D.C., the cause of migrant workers; Dominican Republic, research for a case against the state involving Haitian migrant workers.

Then, on to Sweden, where I completed a master's degree in international human rights Law that led to travelling the world, working in the field of human rights education.

At the end of 2009, I got the chance to return to Canada to work on the development of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Today, some Salvadorans are coming as migrant workers to Manitoba as part of a pilot project created in 2002. Opened to all countries in the world, the project allows migrant workers who have been here for a period of time to transfer into the Provincial Nominee Program. Manitoba had been the only province that provided its migrant workers with a pathway to citizenship, until last year when British Columbia followed suit.

After moving into the PNP, they can bring their families to join them. This is how some Salvadoran workers are making Brandon their home. Being able to bring their families to Manitoba facilitates their integration. Unfortunately, allowing migrant workers to become permanent residents is the exception to the rule. Many of them, coming under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, are victims of human rights violations around the country.

Salvadorans over the ages have faced hardship in trying to find their place in society here, but they have succeeded. We are doctors, academics, lawyers, teachers, artists, business owners, agricultural workers and many other people working in a wide range of professions and trades. My cousin Mario, for example, first worked in a settlement agency helping other Salvadoran refugees establish themselves in Winnipeg. Eventually, he started at the University of Winnipeg where he continues to work today as a senior admissions officer.

As a group, Salvadorans have injected Winnipeg with a particular Latin flavour. And we are documenting our journeys in an oral history project called "Salvadoran Voices of Manitoba."

The project was born after Mario met Alex Freund, an oral historian and professor at the University of Winnipeg, who has an interest in the stories of refugees. Mario shared his experience with him and his dream of preserving the collective memory of Salvadoran refugees living in Manitoba. Shortly after meeting other community members, the project started to take shape.

"Salvadoran Voices" hopes to preserve the voices of Salvadorans who have made Manitoba their home, creating a collective Canadian-Salvadoran heritage that can be passed onto future generations. The intent is to ensure the youth don't forget the atrocities that took place in El Salvador and to remember the resilience of its people. The group is working on developing an exhibit Oct. 11-13 at the Inn at The Forks, organized by the University of Manitoba.

The refugee experience in Canada has not always been a positive one. The country has struggled and continues to struggle with deciding to open or close the doors to the different waves of refugees.

When I decided, in Sweden, to leave my globe-trotting life and return to Winnipeg to take my new job, colleagues asked why I would give up so much to do that.

Without hesitation, I told them I wanted to be here, again, because when I needed a new home, Canada was there for me.


Armando Perla is a curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J11

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