When Parallel Lives Collide in Bogotá

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April 8, 2014

Before I left Canada, I met up for coffee with a friend of mine in Waterloo—a pastor named Steve Tullock. We talked about my upcoming work in Colombia with Christian Peacemakers Team, and he told me about Colombian friends of his who had gone to his church in Canada.

The family had applied for refugee status after arriving in 2008. Their church community had supported them through the refugee claimant application process, fighting for their right to stay in Canada, but their efforts had not succeeded. The tribunal judge who handled their case opened the hearing by saying that he had hear that “Colombia is safer now,” and he implied that they were lying.

Steve said that the judge’s written report declining their application showed clearly that he had misunderstood or misinterpreted the facts of their case. After appealing the ruling to no avail, the family was deported in 2012. They had lived, worked—and yes, paid taxes—in North America for over eight years.

After our coffee date, Steve had sent me a quick email with the mother’s Facebook name, and I had added her, not putting much thought into the fact that I might actually interact with her in person one day.

Now as I walked briskly down my street to the corner of La Septima and Calle 23, I saw the face from the profile pictures, attached to a real person smiling up at me. Yamile and I hugged and exchanged a kiss on the cheek, the customary greeting here, and then, arms linked, we walked to a nearby coffee shop. Soon after, we were joined by her husband Javier, who works about a five-minute walk from my apartment.

As we begun to chat about our lives, I was struck by the similarities in our stories. Yamile and Javier had lived in a rural town close to Athens, Georgia, for nine years. They even knew of Comer, the tiny town of only 2,000 residents, where had I spent four months living and working in this year.

After living in the United States, they had moved to Waterloo, Ont., and had fallen in love with the communities that they had found there, just as I had when I had first moved there for university. They talked about how difficult it has been to re-adjust to living in Bogotá and how their family did not fully understand the culture shock that they were going through. Leaving their community and the life that they had created for themselves in Canada was incredibly hard.

I marveled at Yamile’s faith. Though she dreams of one day moving back to Canada, she is also determined to make the best of life here. She spoke about how some mornings it was difficult to get up, but she thought that God must have brought her family back to Colombia for a reason. She has a job teaching English at an elementary school, where she works to inspire her young students to take initiative and set goals.

Each Saturday morning the family hikes Monserrate, a mountain and famous landmark here in Bogotá. On its peak is a 17th-century Catholic church overlooking the city. The hike takes two hours, and the family has invited me to do it with them this upcoming weekend. They have also invited me to live at their home during Holy Week, a Catholic festival that takes place from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.

After our meeting, I marveled at how—in two hours—we had gone from being complete strangers to becoming friends and potential housemates. I couldn’t help but feel that we were sitting across the table from each other for a reason. I’m looking forward to finding out what we will teach each other.

The back story: what led the family to flee Colombia

Yamile and Javier went to the United States individually on student visas, seeking to learn English. After they met and were married, Javier’s brother received death threats from the FARC, a dangerous guerrilla group still active in Colombia today. His small business—a pig farm just outside of Bogotá—was just getting off the ground when he was asked to pay exorbitant bribes in exchange for his family’s safety.

He knew that if he paid the amount they were asking for, they would continue to ask for more and would increase the amount. If he failed to pay, he would risk being kidnapped or killed. He made the decision to flee to Canada, where he successfully claimed refugee status, and was joined by his wife several years later.

Javier and Yamile were left in a tough situation. They did not want to return to Bogotá with their two young daughters while the FARC was still at large, but their visas would soon expire. That was when they decided to apply for refugee status in Canada as well. They were granted legal entry to begin the process, and lived in Waterloo, Ont., for four years before they were deported.

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Comments

Thanks for this, Cass. The connection to our home communities makes it feel especially close.

It makes me wonder whose stories I might one day become entwined with. Someone I pass on my walk to work? or sitting across from me on the bus?

This is a good reminder to remain open to the moments of grace that connect us with strangers.

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