A Place to Call Home17 August 2020 / by Lizbeth López Léon (author)
Amalia visited Canada for the first time when she was seven-years-old. She came with her sister Mariana, her mother Consuelo, and her grandmother. The four of them were visiting Amalia’s aunt - Valeria - who had already lived in Ontario for some time. Valeria was living with her husband and two daughters, one of whom was born in Costa Rica and the other in Canada. The Costa Rican-Canadian family invited Amalia’s to spend two months with them. Amalia felt comfortable around her cousins but as they grew closer it was a much different story for their parents.
“Friction began to emerge between my mother and Valeria. They were fighting all the time, even about the food,” Amalia says. “Their cohabitation began to erode the little connection that remained between the two of them. I was a little child and couldn't understand what was happening.”
A week after arriving, Consuelo and Valeria started to argue and their fight ended with Consuelo’s decision to return immediately to Costa Rica and not to finish the family’s vacations. Despite the first negative experience with her sister, Consuelo hatched the idea that Canada was the country where their family could have an opportunity for a better life. This idea continued to haunt her until almost two years later when they made a second trip, but this time they visited Amalia’s godparents: Claudio and Barbara. It was a crucial moment for the family as they decided to find a way to stay in the country.
They discussed their intentions with their hosts’ days before the visa expired. Consuelo asked them for help to stay. However, Barbara was sincere and told them that it was somewhat complicated to migrate, so they had to be cautious. She recommended them to go back and find the right way to move in. Finally, they told them they couldn’t stay longer than permitted. Consuelo had to accept the advice, but before they returned to Costa Rica, she looked for legal advice and was given the option of coming back as an immigrant and not as a visitor.
Consuelo explained to them that she did not want to go back and did not have the money to return to Canada. With Costa Rica being an Army-less nation, Amalia’s mother was told it would be difficult to make the case that the family were refugees. “It doesn't look like a dangerous place,” Amalia says. “But later on, I will have understood my mother’s main reason to stay in Canada.”
Even as the family once again returned to Costa Rica, Consuelo was resolute: Canada would be their home. “We had to make sacrifices,” explains Amalia. “My sister and I had to sleep on an inflatable mattress for several months. We had to split small portions of chicken for each meal, the four of us. It was a difficult time.”
Suddenly, Amalia received big news: her parents would travel to Canada - without her and her sister - and they would not return. “My heart broke,” she recalls. “I cried with my sister because I still did not understand the reasons for doing all those changes.”
Everyone packed up. Amalia and Mariana were taken to live with a neighbour with whom their mother felt comfortable leaving them. Amalia says could not stop crying her eyes out from the moment her parents took a cab and waved from inside the vehicle with tears in their eyes too.
"I realized I’m going to leave my school, my country, my family, everything.”
Even as Amalia’s sister supported her, she felt abandoned and without a clue of what exactly was happening. Her parents left them a vase with coins so they could buy lunch at school every day.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Consuelo and Armando arrived in Montreal, where they were told it was easier to enter the country.
Upon arrival at the airport, they declared themselves refugees. After having their passports seized and hours of interrogation, they were released. With butterflies in their stomach, Amalia’s parents came out to a new world with two suitcases, and the beginning of the fight. Armando and Consuelo stayed at a YMCA, where they spent three weeks looking for work in order to settle down and bring their daughters with them.
It was a month after Amalia’s parents’ departure when she received the news that she would be traveling to Canada soon. Mariana helped her pack their memories, flavours, smells, and the love of their family and friends.
“I was excited to see my mom and dad again, but, at the same time, my mind was confused as I realized I’m going to leave my school, my country, my family, everything,” says Amalia.
When declaring their status as refugees, the sisters went through an odd amount of questions. After almost four hours of questioning they were released and her breath returned to her body once she saw their parents again, they were waiting for them anxiously.The happy family arrived together at the YMCA, without much belongings and the winter almost upon them. The girls stayed in a small room with a single bed. They received tickets to exchange for daily meals, and donated clothes.
By this time, Amalia was beginning to rebel. She says she hated being forced to speak in a language she had never learned before. She was in a culture clash. Some of her classmates bullied her because of her accent. “I couldn't make friends. They mocked me with jokes and I only made friends with other Latin-Americans kids. When someone talked to me in French, I replied in English and it was the worst,” says Amalia. “I felt betrayed because I thought we would be with my godparents speaking English.”
Meanwhile, the date of the hearing approached. A judge would decide the fate of the family. Each member would be interrogated. The attorney who was handling the case tried to understand what the real motive for such a big change was. It was at that moment when Amalia found out her sister had been harassed in Costa Rica, so Consuelo wanted to distance her from those people. However, the lawyer told Consuelo it was not enough to convince the judge to give them the Permanent Residence. They needed a stronger argument.
When the time to speak with the judge came and the argument failed, Amalia’s mother revealed the last resort she had, but strong enough. Consuelo, with tears in her eyes, told the judge she was afraid to return to Costa Rica because she had been abused by her siblings. She was afraid her daughters could suffer the same fate. Amalia says she was in shock after hearing this: “Then I realized what all this was about and how important this was for my family.”
Their attorney argued they couldn’t return to Costa Rica as they would be put in danger. Also, he shared with the judge a diagnosis that had been made in Montreal to Consuelo, after having very high stress, which indicated that Amalia’s mother had Bipolar Disorder.
It is after revealing these secrets that the judge pronounced the words Amelia will never forget: Welcome to Canada! You have the Permanent Residence.
“I remember this moment as one of the happiest after a long time, and I think the happiest of my life so far. Seeing how my mother had achieved her dream after so much sacrifice made me feel proud. Everything we did had been worth it. No one was going to be able to take us out of the country,” says Amalia.
It is at that moment when Armando tells them that they can go to Ontario and live near their godparents. “For a while, I felt nostalgia because I knew I would never see my family, my friends, I wouldn’t grow up in the country of Gallo Pinto,” Amalia says. “You think you will forget your country. As a child, I couldn’t understand, but now, I know it was worth it."