We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Grace and have a conversation about her experience of arriving in Canada in 2011 as a refugee from Africa. She spoke very little English and had only discovered she was HIV+ after her arrival. Her ultimate goal was to find employment and eventually bring her four children here, so she could support and care for them. How she approached this seemingly insurmountable task is a story of determination, resiliency and hope.
“I had to leave everyone behind.”
Moving to a new country to create a better life is a difficult prospect. But imagine having to leave your children behind in order to create a better life for them. That is exactly what Grace had to do. Growing up in Africa, there were few options for her. “Girls did not go to school. I never went to school. I got married and had two sons.”
When her uncle died, she took in her two young cousins, essentially adopting them, but this was not well-received. “My husband didn’t like my cousins. I didn’t have peace of mind in my home. I wanted to leave but in my culture, you were told to stick with your husband, but I wanted to work.”
Grace’s husband became abusive and she left him. Leaving her four children with a relative, she decided to come to Canada so she could work and support them, even though she knew very little English. On arrival she was asked if she was claiming refugee status. She didn’t understand what this meant and indicated she wanted to work.
She did end up claiming refugee status and as part of the process she was required to have a medical exam, which is when she received some shocking news.
“It was only then that I found out I was HIV+. I thought I was going to die…”
Connecting with a support group for women, she learned about HIV and Fife House. It was then that she came into contact with people who were going to help her rebuild her life. Although she wanted help finding a place to live, she found out that Fife House provides so much more, something that most people don’t realize.
When she met with the Homeless Outreach Coordinator “I did not have much spoken English, but he managed to understand me. He wanted me to go to school to learn English but I was afraid to go. I wasn’t sure about the refugee hearing and what it was going to be about but he explained it to me.”
She now had hope that she would be able to complete the application, stay in Canada and someday, bring her family together again.
Before the hearing she managed to find someone from her country who spoke her language. “I told her my story and she helped me. She wrote it down but I still wasn’t sure what it said.” However, she was successful, thanks to a compassionate judge. Now the real work began to help her reunite her family.
Fife House was able to place her in one of our scattered sites, under the supervision of the Denison Staff, who visited her on a regular basis to help her get settled and support her.“(Staff) gave me the confidence to go to school. I spent 18 months in school to learn English even though I didn’t know how to write. I felt out of place but I was going to achieve what I wanted. At the end I was the best in the class.”
Grace soon got a job and started sending more money home to support her children, something she had been doing since shortly after her arrival. But the relative with whom they were living did not spend all of the money on them and they were not eating well.
“No one can take care of your children as a mother can.”
With the help of Legal Aid, she applied to bring her children here, but there was a lot of paperwork involved. Fife House staff helped her with this as well; “(They) were always available to give me help and explain the documents. They have been there for me most of the way.”
Over time, the family was reunited in Canada but needed larger accommodation and Grace once again turned to Fife. “I told (him) I wanted a good place for my children. I don’t want to go somewhere dangerous because of my children.” Grace credits Fife with her ultimate success in finding a place to call home.
“They gave me a home, support to go to school. It was easy for me to get help when I called. Fife House made me where I am today, they gave me shelter. Now I’m a happy woman with a family.”
Reuniting families and providing the resources for them to thrive is just part of what we do on a daily basis. But we can’t do it alone. Without your help, we can’t go above and beyond basic services to help more people like Grace and more than 350 others, including families, who connect with our Homeless Outreach Program annually.