Journey to Safety: one refugees story
Carmen was born in El Salvador to two loving parents. She has five sisters and one brother. She and her family have lived in Canada since 2016 when they were forced to flee their home country due to gang violence. Between 2014-2017, gang violence killed nearly 20,000 people in El Salvador, propelling tens of thousands to flee in search of safety. Extortion at places of business is a large problem. Every week gang members, or 'mareros', come by every shop to collect the 'renta', or protection money, from merchants who can’t afford their own security guards. Again, most shopkeepers pay. To defy the gangs is to court death. She has bravely shared her story.
Before we were born, my parents started a family business. We grew up working with them and going to school at the same time. The family business was well established, running for 36 years. Our problems began ten years ago when the ‘Gangsters18’ (also known as “18th Street gang) appeared. In the beginning they demanded only a little money from us and we gave it to them so they would let us go to work. The gangsters saw that threatening people was an easy way to get money, so they started expanding across the whole country of El Salvador.
We continued to pay the extortion money and over the years the amount kept growing.
In 2016 our problems got much worse. It was Sunday, February 28th; I was pregnant with my first daughter Sofia. When we went home from work some of us went to the kitchen to get some food, some went to clean up and some went to their rooms. But the Gangsters followed us. They locked us in the house. Suddenly we heard one yell “everyone to the floor”.
My sister was in her room. I was with my husband in our room. We locked our doors. We were shaking with fear and thought that if we opened our doors they would kill us. I was worried for my baby. My husband and I didn’t know what to do. In the other room my sister called the police many times to rescue us, but the police didn’t answer the calls. She called another of our sisters who was not in the house and told her call the police. She also tried to call the police several times and got no answer, so she and her husband went out in the streets to find a patrol that would help us. Finally they saw a patrol and told them what happened and took them to our parent’s house. When the police arrived they yelled “Police - hands up”. One of the Gangsters18 tried to run. He had a gun. The police shot and killed him. Two others threw down their weapons and surrendered. A third Gangster 18 was outside of the house waiting for his companions. He was arrested too.
My family and I left our house that day with only a few items of clothing. We asked the police to help us and protect us. That same day I went in to labor and the next day Sofia was born.
Two days later my mom and my brother received a call from the Gangsters18. They threatened to kill us if we went to the police to formally file charges. They told us they knew where we were. For one month we didn’t go to work because we were afraid they would retaliate. Finally my sister went to open the business again so that we could earn some money.
The Gangsters18 came back again in July. This time they demanded $5,000.00 USD and said we had to pay because they knew where to find us. All this time we were helping the police to prosecute the three detainees. We paid the extortion and started to look for a place where we could be safe.
On September 15, 2016 two of the gangsters were sentenced to 8 years in prison. But the third was released.
On September 29, 2016 my parents flew to the United States. Seven days later my husband my daughter Sofia and I joined them and then came to Canada. My brother and his wife and babies ran away on foot and applied as refugees to the United States.
Unfortunately two sisters cannot leave El Salvador because they cannot get American visas. They are hiding. They move constantly.
My history is one of many in the world. The reasons why we left everything behind are endless, but the love of our lives and our children motivated us to save ourselves. When we arrived in Canada on November 4th, 2016, we felt that God had saved us and had given us a new opportunity for a peaceful life. In the beginning we did not know what would happen or how could we start a new life.
We live in Fort Erie now and since we arrived, many organizations have given us help. The Fort Erie Multicultural Center has been there for us in every way we need, the school board teaches us our new language. The Salvation Army, The Outreach, Casa El Norte, The Saint Vincent de Paul, The Fire Station and many other organizations have been there to help us build our new lives.
Thank you for all the love and compassion you give. Thank you for changing our lives for the better. Thank God and United Way today, tomorrow and always.