Their arduous trip began soon after the soldiers came to their village. Young men who did not willingly don a uniform were regarded as guerrilla sympathizers. If a teenager, rightly or wrongly, assumed that label, his options were very limited.
Everyone knew stories of people being dragged from their homes in the middle of the night.
The ‘disappeared’ rarely returned.
In El Salvador 25 years ago, the US-sponsored military waged war against the poor. Some did fight back and joined the FMLN, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, in the mountains. Many others, like the Pineda brothers whom I first met at the Via Rail station in Saskatoon just before Easter in 1985, chose to flee the war that afflicted their land.
They joined a stream of poor refugees like themselves.
Three international borders had to be crossed illegally. At any point they could be stopped and sent back. Working just for food or exploitative wages, they managed, like so many others, to keep heading north.
When the Pineda brothers reached the United States they found help in a network of shelters, largely in churches, the Sanctuary Movement or Overground Railroad.
Like the Underground Railroad, which shepherded slaves to freedom in Canada prior to the US Civil War, the ‘Overground Railroad’ offered a way to Canada for Central American refugees.
During the years of the Reagan presidency, the United States didn’t recognize people as refugees who were fleeing oppressive US-backed military regimes or the illegal Contra War it waged against Nicaragua. However, some 500 congregations opposed to US foreign policy did. They offered them shelter from US Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities bent on their repatriation to the conflict zones and provided a way for many to reach sanctuary in Canada.
The Pineda brothers made it to Canada via a church group in Kent, Ohio. Then a Quaker house in Toronto hosted them and put them on the train for the long trip to Saskatchewan. They settled there after winning formal refugee status and, with the assistance of an ecumenical refugee support group in Prince Albert, the older brother was reunited with his family.
Today a lot has changed. In El Salvador the one-time rebel group, the FMLN, saw its candidate, Mauricio Funes, win the presidency a month ago.
Now a person fleeing oppression elsewhere in the Americas cannot make their way overland to Canada.
The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the US states a person seeking refugee protection must make their claim in the first country they arrive in. Also our official support for refugees has slipped.
In the 1980s, when the Pineda brothers came to Canada, we welcomed on average 18,000 refugees a year. This figure has fallen to less than 11,000 annually since 2000.
As well, the Canadian refugee determination system is fraught with problems.
Long delays in the process allow people to begin new lives here then, all at once, a negative decision can dramatically threaten to uproot them with only a few weeks notice.
We have been witnessing this very drama being played out here in the case of two Mexican students at Whitehorse’s FH Collins Secondary School, their mother and three small children over the last two weeks.
Their fate was determined by a single decision maker in a refugee determination system never approved by our federal Parliament.
And while The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of 2001 created the Refugee Appeal Division, the government never implemented this section.
“For nearly seven years, refugee claimants in Canada have been denied the appeal that Parliament granted them in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” laments the Canadian Council for Refugees (www.ccrweb.ca).
Correcting these injustices is long overdue.
The Canadian Council for Refugees is calling on Canadians to urge their member of Parliament to support Bill C-291, which demands Ottawa implement the long promised the Refugee Appeal Division.
Locally we also have a responsibility to act.
We haven’t had an active refugee support group here in the Yukon for several years.
Maybe it is time we do again.
Can Yukoners offer a few of the millions of refugees in our world today a place to call home?
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse.
Sunday, April 19—Pascha or Easter for Orthodox Christians.
Sunday, April 19—Second Sunday of Easter. A suggested reading is John 20: 19 – 31.
Tuesday, April 21—Yom Hashoah , Holocaust Day has been set aside to remember the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis in 1933-45.
Tuesday, April 21—Ridvan is the beginning of the Baha’is twelve day period honouring Baha’u’llah’s declaration in 1863 that he was God’s messenger.
Wednesday, April 22—Earth Day seeks to unite us around actions to protect our planet.
Thursday, April 23—Saint George Day remembers the 4th century martyr who became the patron saint of England.