From journalist to janitor: The challenge of a refugee’s resettlement in Canada

This story was originally published in 2012 as part of my thesis project.

Luis Horacio Najera clasps his hands behind his back and examines a bush covered in small pink flowers. He studies a wilted flower. A bee lands on his nose, and he quickly grabs it by its wings, dropping it into a near-empty water bottle.

“The trick is to wet the bee, but not to drown it,” he says in broken English. He slowly starts shaking the clear Evian water bottle, turning it up to the sky; his small eyes examine its contents. “Ah! I think I may have aggravated him.”

He takes the angry wet bee and slowly moves the stinger towards his arm. As it pierces his skin, Luis winces, yelps, and jumps around. He then gathers himself, squints as he adjusts his black-rimmed glasses, and then smiles.

Apitherapy — also known as bee string therapy — is a natural and traditional practice that heals stress and boosts one’s immune system. In order to accomplish this risky technique, you slightly wet the bee’s wings, as the weight of the water prevents it from flying away, and then puncture the stinger into your skin.

“This is practiced in Mexico and all over Latin America,” he says while rubbing his forearm. “It helps with my stress, but to cure stress you also have to let the bee sting your head.” He turns around, parts his dark short hair with his fingers, and points to the lower part his head. “It really hurts and sends a shock down your entire body. But two hours later you feel so relaxed. I always sleep like a baby when I sting my head.”

He lets the bee loose and continues on with his work, passing the bush of flowers. Walking in tiny strides down a dusty alley, he stops at a large blue garbage bin. He opens the top of the bin and hauls three heavy black garbage bags into, grunting from the weight. He then heads back to the building to finish his job, as he and his family are cleaning toilets and vacuuming rugs at a run down checkpoint building for trains on the outskirts of Vancouver. Right before he heads into the building, he pauses and takes a long breath.

“It’s really hard to be here. I feel sad and sometimes angry.” Luis opens the rusty door to the building and mumbles, “I used to be a journalist.”

Dying for the truth

On September 25th 2011, a thirty-nine-year-old woman, with long black hair was found dismembered; her body parts scattered near a statue of Christopher Columbus on a busy avenue in Nuevo Laredo — a city in northern Mexico. A pair of headphones, a keyboard, and a handwritten sign were placed alongside her decapitated body. In large letters, the sign read that Maria Elizabeth Marcia, the editor of a local newspaper, was killed in retaliation for her postings on a social networking site about Mexico’s drug war.

Earlier the same month in Nuevo Laredo, a woman was left topless and disemboweled, dangling by her feet and hands from a pedestrian bridge. A bloody man hung next to her, wearing a stripped blue shirt stained with blood, his shoulder severed so deeply the bone was visible. Signs left near the bodies read that the two were killed for denouncing drug cartel activities on a popular online forum called Frontera Al Rojo Vivo. The messages left next to all three bodies were signed with a large “Z”. It is the signature of Los Zetas, the second most powerful drug gang in Mexico.

Beheadings, executions, and public hangings are common in Mexico’s drug war. When the violence escalated in 2006, the U.S. Joint Forces Command recommended that Mexico be monitored alongside Pakistan as a “weak and failing state” that could crumble under the relentless assault of the drug war. There is no sign of the war ending; it’s only becoming more violent as drug-related murders continue to rise each year, especially in the high-conflict zones of the north.

But it wasn’t always this way.

When Luis Najero was 23, he knew what he had to do. His passion was not to practice law or sell cars or drive a bus — Luis had to tell stories. Naturally, he decided to go into journalism school. During his studies he landed his dream job as a sports writer for a local newspaper. Luis is a sports junkie, he can name off player statistics faster than Joe Montana hurls a football. It was meant to be. He wrote about soccer, baseball, basketball, and even attended and reported on the Super Bowl of 1996 in Arizona, where the Dallas Cowboys played the Pittsburg Steelers (Dallas won).

His life wasn’t all reporting. When he was in university he met his wife Patricia, who was working at an insurance company. They fell in love and bought a house on the outskirts of Juárez. They raised their three children, Kevin, Luis Horacio, and Marianela. On Sundays they attended church, on weekday nights Luis watched baseball with his father-in-law, and on weekends the Najeros had many late night parties with neighbors and family.

Like every good journalist, Luis knew how to multitask. He learned how to cover stories beyond sport. He covered elections, anti-NAFTA demonstrations, rock concerts, police riots, immigration issues, dabbled in interior design, and even wrote a weekly column about self-esteem.

It wasn’t until he spent time reporting about U.S., Mexico border issues that Luis found his true passion. He says he felt alive and his life had purpose because he was exposing crime and high profile drug cartels. Of course writing about gangs smuggling contraband weapons, ammunition, and drugs across the border comes at a personal cost. Luis’ beat was the El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Chihuahua border. The cities are separated by the Rio Grande that flows in a thin line through concrete channels. On one side of the river sits the quiet and prosperous town of El Paso. It consistently ranks as one of the safest cities in the United States. A stone’s throw away, across the river, is Juárez — one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The road into Juárez brings cocaine, AK-47s, and explosives. This is where Luis was stationed. Going to work he brought his pens, note pads, cameras, and a bulletproof vest. It was a requirement for journalists.

A reporter who is well prepared when covering high conflict zones is more effective on the scene and has a better chance avoiding injury, kidnappings, or death, if trained in safety. And this is exactly what Luis did. His employer sent him to a border training academy in Texas, where Luis, among other professionals, were taught how to shoot a gun and how to respond during high conflict scenarios such as kidnappings or torture. Luis was sent a shooting range in the dessert, equipped with a 90 mm and an AR 50. Here, he practiced shooting on a man-shaped target and over time he was able to land a bullet square in the middle of the head. Luis says the training was about trusting instincts in order to react on time. And the training couldn’t have come at a more critical time for him; the drug war between the Mexican government and cartels was escalating in violence. The cartels were gaining power, especially in the areas of high drug trafficking like Juárez. And the gangs had a mission — to muzzle the press at all cost.

Drug-related killings have ravaged Juárez since 1993, when the city’s most notorious gang — Cartel de Juárez — came into power. Yet it wasn’t until 2006 that the city was named the “murder capital of the world”, averaging eight murders a day. The cartels now owned the streets of Juárez and controlled a majority of the press.

Drug production and trafficking in Mexico goes back decades, but the country’s job as a supplier has grown considerably in the 2000s — most notably the mass production of opium and methamphetamine (meth). Many of the family clans that controlled trafficking in the 1980s and 1990s fractured into smaller criminal groups, and fights over territory became increasingly violent. As the drug trade grew so did the cartels’ power and thirst for territory. They efficiently took over Columbian and South American supply routes, which were previously in the hands of gangs such as the Columbian Cali and Medellin cartels. Now Mexican gangs control the majority of meth, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana that flows to their number one seller — the United States.

Drug cartels have immense resources at their disposal. They can infiltrate underpaid police forces, bribe politicians, coerce journalists, and intimidate soldiers in order to promote their authority, which usually means enforcing violence. 2010 marked the bloodiest year to date in Mexico. More than 15,000 people were killed in drug-related violence. Some blame the drug war on the 2006 election of President Felipe Calderon, some blame police corruption, and others blame the execution of NAFTA.

Max Cameron, a Professor of Political Science at UBC, says NAFTA had devastating effects on the Mexican economy. “It displaced millions of rural citizens who then moved to cities or to the North to find employment,” says Cameron. “But the new economy could not absorb the newly interrupted workplace, so this is where the drug economy enters, especially in cities like Juárez.”

Cameron, who specializes in Latin American politics, is convinced this created a generation of young people with few opportunities and big aspirations. “They have been told prosperity is around the corner,” he says. “And that Mexico is now part of the modern world, but it’s a neo-liberal mythology.” The opportunities were just not there. When NAFTA formed, the Mexican banking system collapsed and the country lost its source of domestic capital. So where does this new capital come from? Drug dollars. According to Cameron, drug dollars are keeping Mexico’s entrepreneurial class in business. “Drug money and traffic is pervasive to the system. You have thousands of trucks going across the border per day because Mexico is a crucial shipment point for cocoa going to countries like Columbia and the U.S.” Mexican cartels bring an estimated $25 to $40 billion into Mexico from their global operations every year.

Combine the new drug economy with corrupt police and military, and the government’s new ‘war on drugs’ initiative, and you get a state of civil unrest. Cameron says this is because President Calderon shook up the tight order of drug cartels when he came into power in 2006. Ten days after the election he unleashed the army against the drug industry in order to show force and gain back legitimacy due to his razor-thin presidential victory. Major leaders of gangs were killed new disputes over territory and drug routes increased, and killings began to spiral out of control.

Another casualty from the war is journalism. Since 2008, 34 reporters have been killed. The violence leads to a muzzling of the press as truthful reporting can get a journalist beaten, kidnapped, or set on fire. Silence and self-censorship are sometimes the safest way to report. This was the case for Juárez’s main newspaper, El Diario de Juárez.

The headline said it all. “What do you want from us?” After the brutal killing of El Diario’s photographer Luis Carlos Santiago, the newspaper finally gave in to the drug gang’s desire for media censorship. The editorial was a plea to gang members, asking them to stop the attacks. It read:

We’d like you to know that we’re communicators, not psychics. As such, as information workers, we ask that you explain what it is you want from us, what you’d intend for us to publish or to not publish, so that we know what is expected of us. You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling, despite the fact that we’ve repeatedly demanded it from them. Because of this, before this undeniable reality, we direct ourselves to you with these questions, because the last thing we want is that another one of our colleague’s falls victim to your bullets.

As some Mexican news publications began to practice self-censorship, Luis decided he didn’t want to turn away from his passion. “I chose to investigate national gangs and write about human rights abuses,” says Luis. “I was consistently trying to reveal these abuses up close by publishing names and taking pictures — they don’t like to be exposed.”

It started in 2006 when Luis was taking pictures of bodies at crime scenes that shed light on criminals — he was told by police and military to stop snapping his camera. The same year he covered a case about the murder of a prominent lawyer in Juárez, he was then followed and harassed as a result. Then in 2008 Luis wrote a series of publications involving the military’s practice of torture and assassinations on police and civil society. Investigating any kind of corruption in Mexico usually leads to danger, and Luis knew this, as in 2006 and 2007 two of his colleagues were murdered for publishing details about cartel members. So why did he continue? “This is the job that I love,” he says. “Those abuses have been going on for a decade and were getting much worse. I lived there, my family lived there, and my friends were dying. My personal values kept me going.” Luis decided the only way he could protect his community was to find the truth.

The hostility in Mexico was increasing and because of his determination to find the truth, Luis was caught up in the middle of it. “I sometimes think I was like a frog in an experiment, placed in water whose temperature is raised bit by bit until it dies,” he says. “Despite being photographed at crime scenes by shadowy men in luxury vehicles, despite being followed by individuals carrying assault rifles, I did not sense for some time that my life was at risk. But unlike the frog, I finally recognized I was in imminent danger when the temperature went up suddenly in August 2008.”

Grupo Reforma, one of the largest print media outlets in Juárez, published Luis’ articles on abuses performed by military officials. He tried to publish intricate and revealing information about soldiers but the editor of the paper demanded Luis take out some controversial information in the article in order to protect the newspaper. “I was very upset with this, because if I’m risking my life, I might at well tell the entire truth,” Luis says. Yet the edited versions were risky enough. Soon after the articles hit the news stands Luis’s colleague told him about a list. This list had names of people targeted by drug criminals. Luis Najero Horacio was on it.

The news scared Luis but he believed it could have been hearsay and it wasn’t enough for him to pack up his family and leave Mexico. He spent the next few days trying to confirm or disprove the list. “There’s an old phrase among Mexican police officers that says, ‘your stomach and your heart gives you good advice — listen to them’,” he says. After a few days a voice in Luis’ head was telling him he was in trouble and that the list wasn’t a rumor.

His first threat came in May 2008 when unknown men pointed two AK 47s at Luis as he was driving his car. Days later, Luis’ wife Patricia was bringing groceries into her house when she noticed a car parked outside. As Patricia stared at the vehicle, a man rolled down his window, pointed his finger at her in the shape of a gun, and pulled the trigger.

Luis knew he had to act. He couldn’t trust the government or the police to help him, knowing the amount of corruption around him. “I wasn’t going to wait until someone shot me to realize the amount of danger I was in. If I waited until that moment they would have shot to kill,” he says.

In two weeks Luis sold his Jeep for airline tickets, him and his family said goodbye to their loved ones, and then packed up their bags. They were ready to escape Mexico and seek refuge in Vancouver.

In search of refuge

Thousands of citizens like Luis are escaping the country in order to seek protection in places such as Canada. But the Canadian government has started closing its door to Mexican refugees, as the government believes they are clogging up the country’s immigration system. The number of Mexican refugee claimants in Canada nearly tripled from 3,400 in 2005 to 9,400 in 2008. The same year, Mexicans accounted for more than 25 per cent of all refugee claims in Canada — ranking number one on the refugee list. Yet the high number of refugee claimants was met with a high number of rejections rates. The number of Mexican refugees seeking asylum in Canada fell from a 28 per cent acceptance rate in 2008 to eight per cent in 2009.

When a Mexican claim is rejected — two reasons frequently dictate the decision. The first is the internal flight alternative; meaning the claimant can avoid persecution by relocating somewhere else in Mexico. The second is the presumption of state protection. The Canadian government labels Mexico a working democracy, therefore it is considered a country that is capable or protecting its citizens. A new reason for rejection is also popping up for Mexican claimants — the notion of generalized risk. Canada’s refugee protection act does not grant status to those facing ‘generalized risk’.

“What this means is, an IRB member will now say ‘well sure you are at risk of being killed in Mexico, but so is everybody. So that means you’re really not a refugee,” says Peter Edelmann, Luis’ immigration lawyer in Vancouver. Edelmann exhibits a casual yet professional manner — a likeable feature for newly arrived immigrants and refugees. He says he’s seen more and more of his clients rejected because of the notion of generalized risk. Edelmann questions this reasoning. “If you are denying a claim because everyone is afraid of this, then you have to wonder, why are you sending people back to a country where everyone is afraid of being killed?”

Peter Edelmann/Twitter

There is another hurdle Mexican refugees face when coming to Canada — visa requirements. In 2009 Canadian Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, introduced the visa requirement in order to halt the flow of refugee claims from Mexico. “The sheer volume of these claims is undermining our ability to help people fleeing real persecution,” said Minister Kenny in a news release on Citizen and Immigration Canada. “All too often, people who really need Canada’s protection find themselves in a long line, waiting for months and sometimes years to have their claims heard. This is unacceptable.”

Showler talks fast and speaks frankly; this is because his background in refugee law is quite profound and he has much to say on the subject. Over the past 25 years he’s practiced and taught refugee law, and currently is the director of Ottawa’s Refugee Forum — a program providing legal and policy information on asylum law in the interest of improving Canada’s refugee system. Showler says that despite hiccups in Canada’s refugee system it is still the best in the world. “Of all the industrialized countries, Canada is the only country to have a refugee system following the principle of first decision, best decision.” In Canada, the first decision is a full hearing before an independent tribunal member — the IRB. In contrast, other refugee systems give government officials (asylum officers, immigration officers, border police) the authority to make the first refugee status decision. Showler says these government officials are not independent, gather information through an interview and not a hearing, and are often poorly trained with limited country information resources. Showler believes the Canadian system runs much better, but still far from perfect.

According to Minister Kenney, Mexico’s visa requirements were implemented in order to deter ‘bogus’ or ‘illegal’ refugees. Showler says this rationale is far from the truth — there is no such thing as a bogus refugee. If a refugee’s case is denied, it simply means his or her claim has been refused. “A refugee cannot be illegal; they are all legal in Canada”, says Showler. “The Minister understands the difference, but he does that for rhetorical and political purpose.”

Standing before the judge

Luis plops down a cardboard box; it makes a loud thud noise as it lands on his living room table. “930 pages, double-sided!” he exclaims. Opening the box he reveals pages upon pages of evidence he brought to his hearing. “You have no idea how many nights I spent on this,” he says while looking around the room. The walls in the living room are bare, except for a few photos he took of his wife and a certificate for ‘Fearless Reporting’ he received from the Committee to Protect Journalists. There are boxes scattered in the room and in the hallway near the front door. Luis has been in Canada for over two years and still has not quite unpacked. His house remains empty except for the bare necessities –couches, beds, a table, a television, and this one huge box he is preoccupied with.

His large hands rummage through the evidence. He picks out a stack of papers.

“This is the document that proves I’m a journalist, these are bunch of media cards, immigration documents, receipts form Mexico…” Luis goes on excitedly looking through the box. It is his life packed into 930 pages, a reminder of his achievements as a seasoned reporter. He holds up a press card reading ‘Luis Najero’ in big black letters; it’s for the 1996 Super Bowl game. Grabbing another piece of paper, he smiles. “This is my award I received from the CPJ,” he examines it while flicking it in the air. “This helped a lot for my hearing.” He flips through more pages and pulls out another document. “This is a medical letter stating my post-traumatic stress disorder. My doctor says my levels are the same levels as a soldier who returns from war.” Luis puts the medical note back in the box saying nothing.

“I remember the day I found out,” he says. “I had an appointment with my immigration officer to fill out my PIF [personal information form] that day. When I went into the office and I looked on a computer, the first thing I read was about the murder of Armando.” Luis pauses and stumbles with his words. “I just turned my head to my wife and said, ‘Armando is dead.’”

“I have a hard time sleeping. And my moods are really off. Some days I am really really happy and others, really really sad,” he says. Three months after Luis arrived in Canada, he found out his friend and colleague, Armando Rodriguez was shot outside his home. Rodriguez, a seasoned crime reporter in Juárez, was leaving his home to drive his eight-year-old daughter to school when an unidentified gunman ambushed and shot him dead at point blank.

Armando investigated and denounced corruption and illegal activities in Juárez. Consequently, he was put on the exact same list Luis was on. “If I stayed that could have been me who was murdered,” he says. “So there’s a bunch of emotions that come to your head when this happens. I was paralyzed when I found out. Now I don’t think too much about it because….it hurts.”

Luis says he’ll never forget what he went through, but he has to try and develop a way to be happy again. He says this involves sending the painful memories to a “mental archive”. The memories are there but he tries to keep them locked, and from time to time he opens the archive to remember some things, and then puts them back. This is his only way to survive, his only way to move on. But storing away those memories has caused physical and emotional stress — especially his fear surrounding the safety of his family.

Every day, when typing on his computer, eating, or talking on the phone, he perches on the chair in the kitchen next to the front window. The view gives a wide shot of the run down yard, the neighbor’s house, and the parked cars on the road. He sits and watches, keeping an eye on his family. 1,400 miles away from Juárez and Luis still cannot shake the feeling of fear. What if the drug cartels found him all the way in Vancouver? “That’s why I’m always watching,” he says while looking out the window.

The day Luis stood before the IRB judge, he was not scared, but anxious. His journalistic instructs kicked in and he was prepared. Luis and Peter Edelmann spent days, nights, and holidays working on his case in a very short period of time. “He arrived at my office 30 days before his hearing, this was the first time I ever saw him,” says Edelmann. “Normally I would prepare a case months in advance, sometimes years. But we had to file documents and get them to them to the IRB within 20 days.”

One huge benefit the Najeros had on their side was the date of their Canadian arrival, which was 2008. If the family had arrived one year later, they would not have been able to apply for refugee status because of the visa restrictions that were implemented in 2009. “He would have had to lie on his visa application,” says Peter Edelmann. “If Luis said he was applying for refugee status, they would have automatically denied his claim. He would have had to pretend he was a visitor. That’s the whole reason for the visa requirements — to deter refugees.” Luis says he’s thankful he and his family came at a time when the Canadian government was opening its door for Mexicans. “But I know friends and colleagues who are struggling trying to escape the danger in Mexico and cannot come here,” he says. “It’s sad.”

Edelmann describes the work that went into Luis’ case. Luis, Peter, and Elijah the articling student, spent 20 days and many late nights gathering the needed information as well as identifying other issues that might be brought up in his case, such as Luis’ belief that journalism was his identity, a passion flowing through his veins. “He’s not just a journalist in a professional sense,” says Edelmann. “It’s a set of political beliefs he has, which are much more fundamental than a job. So if he had just been a taxi driver then he wouldn’t have had a claim, because being a taxi driver isn’t something inherent about a person. Being a journalist is.” The piles of evidence they supplied must have worked wonders; an hour after his hearing, the adjudicator came back with a decision — Luis and his family were accepted as refugees.

An accepted refugee … now what?

The sound of a vacuum hums through the air; it’s 6:30 pm on a Friday night. Luis and his family are cleaning an old building located on the outskirts of Vancouver. His son Kevin washes dirty cups and then pulls out a garbage bag, dumping rotting food and used toilet paper into it. He quickly twists the bag and heads outside. Patricia is hunched over in the bathroom scrubbing down toilets, while Luis vacuums haphazardly, not really caring too much about the task at hand. There is no talking, just getting the job done as quickly as possible so they can head to the next place to clean. While Patricia, Luis, and Kevin tidy, the two little ones, Luis Horacio and Marianela, sit in a green van parked outside the building. They are playing in the back seat, making the best of their Friday night until around 10:00 pm, when Patricia heads off to her second cleaning job.

In Canada, Luis the journalist is Luis the janitor. He has not been able to find full-time work in his profession since arriving in 2008. He may stand with a vacuum these days, but he hasn’t given up dreaming of a life before a keyboard telling stories. Determined to succeed in Canada, Luis contacted as many journalists as he knew. He found part-time work acting as a specialist on the Mexican drug conflict, and NPR, CBC, and the Toronto Star all jumped at the opportunity to pick Luis’ brain for a good story. In the past year he has been flown to San Diego, Toronto, and Nicaragua to talk about journalism. He’s written for the Globe and Mail, a chapter for a book on Latin American politics, and trained journalists in South America. Yet, it’s difficult to find full-time work in journalism as Luis says many editors of media publications couldn’t hire him because his English skills are not strong enough.

To pay the bills it’s janitorial work for the Luis. But even the money he receives from his cleaning job is not enough to get by. His family relies on recycling, food banks, and used furniture and clothing. The television, the bike, the 70’s decorated couch, even the large dinner table; everything in the Najero household is used or donated from a local church or picked up in an alley. The only thing the family purchased when they arrived was a printer, as it was the most essential part of their Canadian struggle — printing and signing documents.

Among the used furniture and toys are dozens of camera bags, many roughed up after 20 years of taking pictures. He holds one and examines it. “I have an addiction to them. That and shoes,” he admits. He walks passed the couch where his daughter is watching cartoons and sucking on a candy ring. Glittery princess shoes light up as she runs to the other room to watch her mom cut potatoes for dinner. Luis opens the sliding door and heads outside to a shed in the backyard. “When we’re really struggling for money, I resort to my treasures.” He pushes a deteriorated wooden door open. The light from the sun shines in through a tiny window. There are a few toys, rakes, a garden hoe, and a few huge garbage bags filled with recyclable cans. He picks up the bag and taps it three times. This is the treasure he talks about, the money he can use when he needs $10 to $20 for gas. The cans he collects are his savings account.

It’s a constant battle to pay the bills, feed his family, and look for work, but Luis has a safer life in Canada. When asked about Luis’ struggles here, Peter Edelmann pauses and thinks for a moment. He then says, “It’s the difference between being a janitor in Vancouver and being dead in Mexico. That is ultimately what it is about.”

The Najero’s Canadian settlement experience is common among newly arrived refugees. A different culture, language, political system, equipped with a traumatic experience can create a rough adjustment period for many- especially when trying to look for housing.

Not only is housing the main focus of every refugee, it’s also the most difficult challenge. If housing is ‘adequate’ it can offer a sense of security, shelter, and personal space for refugees who are in the process of regaining their independence. It is an important step towards integration in Canadian society. Dan Hiebert, a Professor of Geography at UBC, argues out of all the newcomers that are accepted into Canada each year (economic migrants, temporary workers, etc.), refugees experience the majority of challenges in the housing market. Many arrive to Canada with very little money and not able to gain credit. In an expensive city like Vancouver, many newly arrived refugees flock outside the city in order to afford renting. This is what Luis and his family had to do, move miles outside of the city in order to afford rent. His neighborhood is a refugee haven, where many newly arrived people in Canada head for cheaper accommodation. However, the distance makes it difficult to commute to and from Vancouver.

When the Najero family first arrived in Canada, they spent many long days downtown in an immigration office filing out paperwork. “One night around 11:30 pm all of us were hungry after a long day,” Luis says. “We found one restaurant that was open, but I only had $20 in my pocket. How can you feed five people with only that much money in Vancouver?” Luis asks. He sits thinking, and looks at his daughter who is eating a sandwich and humming, while kicking her feet under the table. “We could only pay for my son to eat. We tried to pay with my credit card but it was declined. Could you imagine? I thought at that moment, what am I doing here?” After the meal, Luis and his family arrived home close to 1:00 am. They entered to discover they discovered that someone had broken in the house and stolen all their groceries.

Life has not been easy in Canada. But Luis did not expect it to be. He knew he would have to work to support his family, yet he continued to dream about journalism. Then in May 2011 his determination paid off. He won a Massey College Fellowship to study journalism in Toronto. After he heard about the news, he took a flight to Toronto to find a new home for him and his family.

Moving forward

Two days before Luis and his family leave for Toronto, the house bustles with children playing, Patricia cooking, and Luis typing away on his computer. The place is empty except for the boxes stacked in the hallways. Friends drop in to say goodbye.

His friend Victor DeAnda, another journalist from Mexico is visiting and saying his goodbyes. Victor, his wife, and three children live a few doors down. His youngest son, Victor Junior, is over playing with Luis’ youngest, Luis Horacio. The two boys were the only Mexicans in their class, and the families became very close as a result. Victor sits at the table talking to Luis in Spanish. Both talk very soft and slow. There is sadness in Victor’s eyes. He and his family have been in Canada for more than three years, but unlike the Najeros, they are still awaiting their IRB hearing. “I waited a year and nine months for my hearing,” says Luis while looking at his friend. “Victor’s situation is very weird. He doesn’t have a date and we don’t know why.” Victor interrupts, his voice becomes louder all of a sudden. “I keep phoning my lawyer asking about my hearing, but she just tells me to calm down. I am nervous that there will be no appointment and we will have to go back to Mexico. This is very difficult for me,” he says. His voice is quiet again as he trails off. “But I left because of problems,” he says.

This is part of the system, some refugee claimants are lucky enough to get a hearing, others wait in limbo, and others are rejected and sent back to Mexico. Luis was fortunate enough to get in and out of the system in less than two years.

Patricia is cooking and has one of her hands on Marianela, smiling as she prepares dinner. She’s talking excitedly about Toronto. “It’s like a dream. I know that things will be fine,” she shyly says. “Toronto is like a Mexican city, fast-paced, vibrant, and more people on the streets.” Patricia is going to take English classes in Toronto, and if all goes well, she plans to return go back to university.

Kevin pops into the kitchen. Like his father he is shy, well mannered, and tall. When asked whether or not he’s excited about the move he just timidly explains he’s indifferent. He’s made friends here and it’s hard to leave them behind once again, but he also knows Toronto is a sign of good change and better opportunities. “I’ve never been there, but my dad told me it’s big,” he says. Luis looks at his son and starts speaking.

“It’s progress, and it’s a good change. When we came here we thought we had no future, and now going to Toronto, it’s quite different. I am a journalist; I don’t see myself doing anything else, like selling cars. At the beginning I felt disappointed, but now when I see the whole picture; after this two year process, I understand Vancouver is not our place.”

Peter Edelmann also knew Vancouver was only Luis’ transition phase. Working for legal aid he has seen countless refugees fall through the cracks and struggle to get by. Some have been so broken that there is no coming back, especially children who have been through traumatic experiences in war-torn countries. Some refugees cannot move past their suffering, but Luis did. Edelmann says Luis was someone he never saw as giving up — despite the trauma he experienced. “It’s just how engaged he was in his own case,” he says. “Luis is going to continue writing, no matter what. It’s his passion, and it won’t go away. I think if I check up with Luis in five to ten years, I think his situation will be very different, and he will be a success.”

Luis is determined to beef up his English skills, so he’s enrolling in ESL classes. Once he finishes his Fellowship in spring of 2012 he’s thinking of applying for a Master’s program, potentially in journalism. “In Vancouver I couldn’t get a job, even an appointment with people from University of British Columbia. But now I have to different universities to choose from,” says Luis, very pleased with himself. “Yesterday I had a meeting with the person in charge of the journalism school at Ryerson.”

Life without a broom

It’s been three months since Luis quit his janitor position and started school. He says he’s happier in Toronto but admits he’s still adjusting to his student life. Every now and then when he’s in a public washroom, he still finds himself grabbing a towel and cleaning a sink. He laughs at the idea of this and says it’s purely instinct. He also says his experience as a janitor changed his perception on life as he now understands his emotions and thoughts better. He was able to experience an entire new world unrelated to the work of a journalist in Mexico. “It’s been an amazing experience though,” he says. “I’ve met such wonderful people.” In his first semester he had a class with James Orbinski — a humanitarian activist, physician, and one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. Orbinski sent him copy of his book regarding stories about the hardships he encountered when he was traveling as a doctor in Africa. Luis flips through the book to the very first page where there is personally signed message from Orbinski. “It’s complicated to read because of the doctor handwriting,” he jokes. “But here he writes, ‘Hoping that always we can begin again.’ So that’s pretty much it…at some point you have to try to begin again.”