JOHN M. KELLY LIBRARY
A Salvadoran Refugee’s Journey
“Life wasn’t very happy for me,” says a young Salvadoran refugee named Tomás, remembering his childhood as a 12 year old at the beginning of the Salvadoran civil war in 1980: “I didn’t want to grow up, because as soon as you grow up, you’re material to go to the barracks and serve in the army.”
This tape cassette is an audio recording of the proceedings of a 1988 conference about Canadian immigration law and its impact on refugees. (L’Arche International Audiovisual Collection, John M. Kelly Library)
Tomás (only first name is provided in the recording) relays the story of his struggles in his home country and his journey to Canada on this audio recording of the proceedings of a small conference called “Refugees, a Learning Experience.” L’Arche International, a faith-based organization dedicated to assisting and providing homes for adults with intellectual disabilities, hosted this conference at a renewal retreat for employees held in 1988. Steve Foster, a lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Toronto, lead the conference and educated attendees about Canadian immigration policies and their impact on refugees. Tomás’s voice is included in the conference in order to show that refugees are more than statistics and generalizations – they are individuals with unique life experiences.
“I’ve always liked working with young people,” says Tomás, who, at age 14, took a course to become a catechist – a community member who teaches others in the community about church doctrine – and started working with the children in his village to prepare them for their first communion. However, Tomás relays that if you’re a catechist, “the army thinks you’re a geurrilla” and “against the government.” The authorities began making threats on his life if he did not stop his work, and many other catechists in the area started to go missing or were murdered. This did not deter Tomás, who continued to teach.
Tomás’s brother Jesús had already fled to the U.S., but Tomás was passionate about his work and loved his home: “I didn’t want to leave my country,” he says. At age 16, he was kidnapped by the army and held in jail, and his father had to borrow money to bribe the guard to free Tomás. At this point, seeing his parents suffering, Tomás decided to leave El Salvador for their sake. Tomás reunited with his brother in Texas and, eventually, with the help of a Christian community in Texas and a Jesuit community in Toronto, they made their way to Canada.
Tomás’s story challenges some of the familiar narratives and generalizations that exist about migration to Canada, specifically that refugees are drawn to their new home by the promise of opportunity and a better life. But for Tomás, El Salvador was home, and where his passions lay. Tomás was part of an important religiopolitical movement in his home country: many high-ranking Salvadoran clergy members were taking a stand against oppressive government practices, and catechists like Tomás played an important role as community leaders at the grassroots level. Tomás demonstrates that there is more to a refugee’s story than the journey and the destination. Refugees lead meaningful, impactful lives before their journies, which must be acknowledged and valued.
Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, supported the people’s right to organize, and hosted Sunday morning radio shows that many rural villages devotedly tuned in to. (Catholic News Service, www.cnstopstories.com)
Shauna Taylor previously studied fine arts and art history, and is currently in her first year of the MMSt program at the University of Toronto, with a particular interest in oral storytelling. She is a practicing artist, and works mainly with fibre media. She is also a medieval art and history enthusiast and hopes her future travels include destinations such as Istanbul to see the Hagia Sophia, and Spain to see some Mudéjar architecture.