My children and I immigrated to Canada in 2010 as refugees. When we arrived, I was so happy that my kids were in a safe country. However, that happiness was quickly sucked out of me when I learned that I would have to attend an immigration hearing and stand in front of a judge who would determine whether I had the right to stay in Canada, or if I would be sent back to my home country of Zimbabwe. The thought brought a new kind of fear that crippled every ounce of hope I had left.
The country we had just escaped was going through a political and economic shift. The ruling power, Zanu PF, had rigged the 2008 elections and sealed a power-sharing arrangement. The MDC opposition party realized too late that power-sharing was a rotten deal and attempted to convince the international community to assist in conducting a free and fair election.
There was a lot of unease and tension on the streets and constant riots. The Zanu PF was using every trick in their books to make sure people pledged their loyalty. Both parties were recruiting young people to go into secret training camps. The youths emerged from these camps radicalized. They tortured the opposition, raped innocent women and children, and burned people alive with acid. No one was held accountable for these atrocities. Politicians simply played the blame game.
It was safer to roam the streets with both membership cards, just in case you were stopped by either political youth group. If they asked you which party you belonged to, you would pull out the appropriate card. I had many close calls where I thought my lack of allegiance would be revealed, but the worst moment came when l was targeted to join the youth campus.
My refusal led to a string of scare tactics that included being locked up and raped. I quietly planned an escape -- I sold my car and my furniture. I attended political meetings, to give the impression that I was joining, and whenever I missed a meeting, I was locked up again.
I remember not being able to cry or find comfort in anyone, because everyone was experiencing their own share of pain and shock. So in April of 2010, after being released from the most recent lock-up, I took my kids at midnight and headed for the border knowing that if I was caught I would be burned alive and killed.
There was no turning back once we crossed the border into South Africa. I was anxious for our flight to Canada the next day. When the plane finally took off from Oliver Tambo airport, my first thought was, "Yes. I did it."
I know now that every government has immigration laws to decide who is allowed to immigrate, who will be deported and how to legalize one's status. But I don't know how to explain the thought process of a single mother with two children, who fled from persecution to give her kids a better life, when she's faced with the idea that she could be sent back.
My head was filled with all the negative possibilities and hanging out with other refugees terrified me, because all they talked about was Bill C31. "Jason Kenney (the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration at that time) doesn't want any more refugees in this country," they repeated constantly. All that chatter made me hug my kids tighter every day. They were going through their own transition challenges and I worried about how I could help them in my current state.
In a short space of time I ran out of money and we landed in a shelter. My daughter was having the time of her life, she loved the new faces, friends and school experiences, but my son caved into a cocoon -- he just went quiet and I sensed a lot of anger. I could also feel myself heading towards a mental breakdown. I knew then that I had to find a survival strategy for the sake of my kids.
I tapped into resources that were available at the shelter, Romero House. They paired me with an intern and her role provided companionship, which was good for my well-being. The moments we spent just talking and laughing brought healing.
Even though I was living with the uncertainty of how my immigration hearing would pan out, watching my kids embrace Canadian culture strengthened me when I was at my weakest point.
I opened myself up to developing new relationships. Barbara Gordon and her husband Doug, neighbours who lived near the shelter, opened their doors to us. Their presence in my life taught me the power of a support structure. Barbara dedicated herself to teaching my kids how to play the piano and scheduled weekend outings with them. Both my children began to blossom.
The numerous acts of kindness that we received from several neighbours, including Carol Toller, who frequently invited us over to her house for dinner, miraculously healed my son. It felt like a light bulb was turned on in his little head -- suddenly he wanted to play with other kids and school was cool again.
Attending the Romero House Liturgy gave the kids and I the opportunity to listen to Father Jack Castello. His sermons about the love of God were powerful and resonated with our circumstances -- ever since we had moved into the shelter, we had received amazing support and an outpouring of love from almost everyone we encountered.
The support system l had managed to establish built me up. Hope replaced fear and my depression disappeared, even though the immigration board had not yet set a date for my hearing. I got involved with almost everything my kids were doing and became a better parent. (I'm still very hands-on, but now my 10-year-old son thinks I'm overprotective when I won't let him cross the road alone.) I tell you, there's nothing more uplifting than seeing your kids thrive -- it boosted my mental health.
After two years of waiting, immigration called me in for my hearing -- it was my life or death moment. Whatever the outcome, I assured my kids that I loved them and I reminded them of the love that was coming our way from all angles. I don't remember what I said or how I responded to the judge, but I clearly recall the bolt of energy that went through my body when the judge said, "Welcome to Canada." My refugee claim had been accepted.
I had a new lease on life. My kids had been given access to education and an opportunity to live in a place where they could feel free to dream and pursue those dreams.
Just before we moved out of the shelter, we had started tea meetings every Sunday evening, to sit down together and catch up on how everyone was doing. During one of these meetings, I was asked what l wanted to do with my life. I had never thought about it, because my focus had always been to provide and care for my kids, but I realized in that moment that I wanted to go back to school. One of the interns asked what was stopping me. I had always wanted to work in media, so I researched the programs available in Toronto and I registered at Centennial College. This June, I will graduate as part of the Journalism Class of 2015.
I still have the same support system, with the same people who were there in the beginning. And whenever I come across folks who ask me, "How do you do it as a single mother? It must be very hard," I just smile, because even if I tried to explain they wouldn't understand. Living in a shelter was my miracle, because I landed at Romero House.
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