Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unwelcome mat

When the Juarez family arrived 35 years ago, 'nobody came to meet us'

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When Elda Juarez arrived in Winnipeg 35 years ago from South America, there was no welcoming committee.

"We didn't know anyone or speak the language," she says.

Three taxicabs fetched the family -- Juarez, her parents and three siblings -- from the airport and dropped them off at a notorious downtown hotel.

"People were fighting and drinking in the hallway," she recalled.

"That was a shock to us," said the woman, then 18, who'd already suffered plenty of shocks in life.

Her father was a businessman in Chile who was arrested during the military junta in the '70s and held as a political prisoner in the National Stadium with 5,000 other accused. Once released, he couldn't get work.

The family fled to Canada for a sense of security -- but that sure isn't what they felt the night they arrived.

They were scared and hoped someone from the immigration department would show up in the morning, she said.

"Nobody came to meet us." They didn't know what to do, and none of them spoke English.

"After a week, a person from immigration was knocking on our door and yelling at us," she said. Juarez said she knew enough English to understand the immigration worker accused them of being "commies" and was berating them for not having better language skills.

She told the worker she was a high school graduate and needed to go to university.

"He said, 'You're over 16. You're supposed to come here and work! Did you think you were going to come and be on welfare?' " she recalled.

They were told to look for an apartment. They set out on foot from their hotel downtown with a map and phrases they'd rehearsed.

"We practised what to say in case we got lost."

After hunting for several days, they found an apartment across from Central Park. There, they met other people from Chile. Her parents found work in a poultry-packing plant. She was told she had to repeat high school. It took her a year-and-a-half.

She went to the University of Winnipeg then studied in Switzerland as an exchange student and returned to school in 1987 to earn a bachelor of education degree.

Juarez, whose family got hardly any help when they arrived, worked with settlement programs and English as a second language classes. She set up programs for groups that are often isolated as newcomers -- mothers with young kids and seniors.

Juarez, who married a man from El Salvador and had two kids, got calls for help in the middle of the night and tried to be there for people struggling with crushing homesickness.

She's happy there are more programs for newcomers today.

"As soon as they arrive, they start to attend English classes. Their reality is so different," said Juarez. When she sees former clients around town now, they say how much they appreciate the help.

"There was a lot of gratitude. You come to a new culture and people will help you with anything you need."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J3

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