A librarian at Kent State University in Ohio and a Quaker social activist in Toronto represented the next-to-last links in a long chain of people who had helped the two Salvadorian brothers make their way thousands of kilometres to Canada.
In the 1980s, wars raged across Central America.
Forced by poverty, injustice and US dollars propping up repressive military regimes, tens of thousands of people fled the violence in their homelands.
Networks of people evolved to move refugees across the United States to sanctuary in Canada.
The complicity of our southern neighbour in the conflicts then sweeping Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua led them to turn a blind eye to most pleas for refugee status from these countries. Canada offered a haven and hope.
The ‘Overground Railway,’ as the unofficial refugee relief network was dubbed, consisted of church basements, makeshift shelters, soup kitchens and even individual homes.
Support communities evolved around peace, solidarity, labour and religious groups.
Vulnerable to deportation, the refugees sometimes just chose to meld into the illegal alien communities they found in the larger American cities along their way.
Others continued their northward journey seeking a safe, permanent home.
A friend from Ohio, whom I had worked with in Guatemala, called one fall evening reaching out for assistance.
It seems that his stop on the Overground Railway had been hosting two brothers from El Salvador for some time.
The threat of a forced return to their war-torn homeland, though, could no longer be ignored.
Could our community host them?
Our Saskatchewan town quickly rallied to the challenge.
An ecumenical refugee committee formed.
The Pineda brothers came north with the help of Nancy Pocock and her Quaker refugee support group in Toronto.
We learned much from them, such as why young males from rural communities in El Salvador were particularly vulnerable in their violence-wracked land.
Their age and gender denied them any claim to neutrality when army patrols swept through their village.
Once they arrived in Prince Albert, we began working on bringing the older brother’s wife and two children up.
Jobs and schooling were easy challenges compared to the bureaucratic hurdles slowing our attempt at a family’s reunification.
Eventually, with problems resolved, a family began their new life in Canada.
The Yukon has a generous record of assisting refugees as well.
In our communities we have people who have come to us as refugees from every continent on the planet.
As refugees they have been forced from their homelands.
By definition, they must have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.”
The reasons for this fear could be based on ethnicity, religion, membership in a particular social group or a host of other reasons.
By coming here hopefully they can finally live without fear.
According to a recent United Nations High Commission on Refugees news release “the number of refugees — 9.2 million — is now the lowest in a quarter century.”
However “the international system for handling human displacement has reached a critical point in an increasingly globalized world.”
Tens of millions more have been internally displaced by war.
The crush of economic migrants often becomes tangled with concern for authentic refugees in a mass of confusion.
Among the results of this has been the tightening of asylum policies in most wealthy countries and often a growing intolerance.
The integrity of our own refugee system has been called into question.
The politicalization of appointments to the Immigration and Refugee Board led to February’s resignation of its chairperson, Jean-Guy Fleury.
Refugee advocacy groups continue to call for the long-pledged right of appeal for refugee claimants.
Ultimately we have to take our share of the responsibility as well.
How open have we really been to people who have no place to call home?
Maybe it is time to open our door just a little wider.
For more in depth information on the global problem have a look at the online edition of The State of the World’s Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium.