This piece by Saulo Padilla, Immigration Education Coordinator for MCC U.S., was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections: MCC theory & practice quarterly.
As governments consider the current refugee crisis, one area of special concern must be the well-being of children and youth. Research in this area is scarce and data is limited. Nevertheless, organizations working at resettlement must continue to search for better practices and support systems for resettling children and youth.
In my work with MCC U.S., I encounter many children and youth in various stages of migration. My thoughts on the topic of resettling children and youth start with my own experience of the resettlement of our family in 1986 from Guatemala to Canada. On the evening of February 18, 1986, many people from our church community and neighbors in Guatemala City came to our home to say farewell. We were departing the next morning to reunite with my father who had fled Guatemala for Mexico in May 1980. He was ultimately accepted as a political refugee in Canada in January 1981. I was 15 years old when I left Guatemala. I remember being happy to jump on an airplane for the first time and travel to Calgary, Alberta, and reunite with my father. This reunification had been our family dream for years. In retrospect, I wish our family had been better informed regarding what was about to happen.
As I reflect on our migration and resettlement process, I have often described it as a new birth, with all the pain, pushes and pulls of labor. We knew a few things about Canada. My mother had cousins in Toronto who had fled there a few years earlier, so we had seen photos of Canada, including of the majestic Rocky Mountains where we would be living. However, no photos or stories could prepare us for what we were going to encounter. Upon our arrival, the government provided some support to help us settle. We received winter clothes at the airport, along with some money to help us start life in Canada. We were enrolled in the health care system and a social worker was appointed to us, although we rarely saw him and he did not speak Spanish.
The first challenges that many newcomers to Canada speak of is the weather. It was -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) when we landed in Calgary. We had never experienced that kind of weather in Guatemala. Like newborns out of the comfort of the mother land, we were cold all the time and had to be clothed differently. While the first few months of snow were part of our honeymoon, the extended winter, followed by a blizzard in early May, which left us stuck without electricity for three days, challenged us. We started to miss home. Within a few months of arriving, we started asking our father over and over if we could go back to Guatemala. Nevertheless, the weather was not an insurmountable challenge.
The system makes you believe that the one major hurdle is learning the language. However, I believe that too much emphasis is put on language learning. Language will come with time and does not deserve the amount of importance that it is given. A bigger challenge for us was to become family again. My parents had their own communication issues, even though they spoke a common language. They had lived apart for a long time and developed their own survival modes of functioning. We children would side with our mother in their arguments and this would upset our father. Even when our family was reunited, we were more fragmented and fractured than when we were separated from our father. Supporting families with counseling and emotional support as they reunite and resettle must be a priority in the resettlement process.
In conversations with resettled refugees, I notice that a common tendency is to measure the success of the migration by what the family has accomplished in the new homeland. As I reflect on where we as a family are now, I am not so sure that is the best measure of successful integration. In many ways I am a success, because I learned English, got a series of good jobs and an education. However, thirty years after my family resettled from Guatemala to Canada, I am still trying to unpack the effects of our migration by different measures. It took only a couple of years to adapt to a Calgary winter and within four years of arrival my brothers and I were speaking English well. However, our family separated again. My mother has suffered from depression which lingers into the present. While my two brothers still live in Calgary, my mother and my sister returned to Guatemala. My father has a new family and lives in British Columbia. I live in Goshen, Indiana.
Looking back on our resettlement experience, I believe that supporting family reunification was an important piece of the resettlement process that was not adequately addressed. Because of this experience, I continue to seek ways to better understand how resettlement affects families and children. My hope is that resettlement agencies can adjust policies and practices to lessen the adverse impacts of resettlement on refugee families and to empower refugee families with children to make informed decisions about movement.