Elizabeth was married off by her family in Uganda when she was 16 years old. She was the man’s fourth wife and her life was completely controlled by him.
During her fourth pregnancy she was very ill and her husband took her to the doctor. She was diagnosed as HIV+ and to respect the culture, the doctor told Elizabeth’s husband to take her home and explain what was happening, something he never did. Elizabeth felt something was wrong however in her culture, wives were not allowed to question their husbands; they were expected to stay quiet and to do whatever they were told.
When her baby was due, they went back to the doctor and Elizabeth was told she would have to have a C-section. This was a surprise to Elizabeth as she had always had natural births. The doctor realized that Elizabeth’s husband had not said anything and had to tell her she was HIV+. Elizabeth believes she was infected by her husband.
The doctor intervened and Elizabeth never went back to her home with her husband. Instead Elizabeth and her children moved in with her mother. The doctor also connected Elizabeth to organizations that then helped her get to Canada.
Elizabeth arrived in Canada in August of 2006 as a refugee having to leave her children behind with her mother. Living in a shelter, Elizabeth realized she would need help with housing and her struggle to bring her children to Canada. In her search Elizabeth found and subsequently turned to Fife House for support.
“I needed help and support, which I got right away – I was blessed,” says Elizabeth.
She was immediately connected to staff in the Homeless Outreach Program. Her housing worker referred her to Gladstone, Fife’s women’s program, and accompanied her on a visit. Elizabeth lived in the house with four other women for 2 ½ years. During that time she had a long road ahead of her; becoming familiar with the Canadian culture, making decisions for herself for one of the first times in her life, and working on her immigration status.
“Gladstone was a sanctuary. I began living the best life an HIV+ woman could live,” says Elizabeth.
With ongoing support from Fife House staff, she was able to connect with appropriate doctors and maintain a drug regimen that stabilized her health. Having been a community worker in Uganda and sponsored by Fife House, Elizabeth also began training as a Personal Support Worker, looking to the day when she would be able to support the family she longed for.
But being separated from her children was stressful and she was missing them very much. Fife House connected her with legal services to help her with her refugee claim and start the process of bringing her children to live with her.
With the opening of the Fife House Sherbourne residences in 2008, the Gladstone residence was closed. Elizabeth was excited and happy to be one of three of the residents who moved into new one-bedroom units. Even though Elizabeth had been given a great deal of preparation for independent living, she found it difficult to be on her own and not in a shared residence.
“I was scared because I was suddenly going to be independent,” says Elizabeth.
But now she was learning how to stand up for herself with even greater confidence.
Some of the extended support Elizabeth received was to be accompanied by her Fife House representative to her refugee hearing, which went well. Fife House also helped Elizabeth complete the applications for her children and the residency forms necessary for their arrival.
With four of her five children about to arrive in the spring of 2011, Elizabeth put the last two courses for her PSW on hold. However, conditions were crowded in her small apartment and eventually they were moved to one of the two bedroom units at Sherbourne designated for families living with HIV/AIDS. When her youngest child arrived the following year, it was evident that they would need more room.
Fife staff assisted with her application to Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) for a large unit in a building under construction. The family received approval, Elizabeth signed the lease and they began packing. With one week to go before moving day, she was informed that the building was not ready and their apartment was not available. Unfortunately they had given notice and their unit was leased to a new family.
“I was in a state of panic – I was crying,” says Elizabeth.
She went to her Fife House housing support worker, and says it was the first time she had ever seen him speechless. She was referred for legal assistance but after two days, with no resolution forthcoming, she went back to her worker. He arranged a meeting with TCHC at which she received confirmation that she would have a unit in a completed section of the complex. Although the move was late, necessitating extensions and alternate arrangements, it did occur. They have the space they need now to accommodate all their needs as a family, including two bathrooms.
Elizabeth feels that she has grown since arriving in Canada and that Fife House has taught her to keep fighting and advocating for herself and her children.
“I can’t imagine my life without Fife House and the people there who helped me. My life would be different. Everything of mine – especially immigration, school for my kids – I have it all because of Fife House and support workers and referring me to good doctors and lawyers. Everything moved very fast because of the people who have been here for me,” says Elizabeth.