“You come from a family of lawyers and yet they can’t do that here. Your friends make fun of you because your parents are janitors but you know they’re really not. You begin to wonder if every time you work hard for something it will just be taken away.”
THIRD IN A SERIES: In Surrey, 40 per cent of residents are immigrants. With this series, we look at the challenges they face as they struggle to build a new life here.
SURREY — It happened 17 years ago but the memory is as vivid as a nightmare Yansie Ardon has just awoken from.
She recalls playing on the monkey bars in her gated El Salvador community when a man tried to break through the wall.
You can still see the fear in her eyes. Her hands move restlessly below the table as she tells the story.
“I was just playing and all of the sudden I saw a man rushing through the fence. I started yelling to my grandma, ‘There’s a man! There’s a man!’ I could see him trying to jump the fence…. The man was wearing black, so he was obviously after someone.
“My grandma grabbed me and we just ran. I think that changed everything for me. I didn’t want to stay there.”
She was six.
Ardon would only spend one more year in El Salvador before landing in Canada as a government-assisted refugee in 2000.
She believes it was her parents’ work in law that led to the family seeking refuge in another country.
“My parents don’t talk much about why we came here. Just that it was safer here,” she said.
Even at a young age, Ardon – now 23 – knew the realities of the gang war surrounding her in El Salvador.
“I knew that it wasn’t good. Even though I was born during a time of peace, after the civil war, we could see how the gangs were starting to take over and influence people.”
According to The Guardian, March 2015 saw 481 people murdered in El Salvador – an average of 16 a day – the country’s deadliest month in a decade.
That experience on the playground altered her family’s way of life. She no longer took the bus to school, instead her aunt would drive her. And she never went to the playground again.
“I remember I would play inside the house with my Grandma and she’d say, ‘We’re going to fly to Canada. It’s going to be OK.’ She would just grab me and pray and promise we were going to leave.”
Her family left El Salvador at 4 a.m. when the time came.
“All was dark, so it was kind of in secret… I just remember seeing my aunt’s best friend there and she was boiling the water for me to take my last shower there. She was crying because she obviously cared about us and she had to stay behind. We got in the truck, nobody saw and we got to the airport.”
While glad to arrive in the land of the free, it would prove to be the beginning of many unknown challenges for the family.
Her parents, lawyers back home, would end up in cleaning jobs.
“I could see how stressed they were about money,” she said.
Even as a child, Ardon felt the pressure. “You go to school and you get made fun of for having second-hand clothing and you know there’s nothing you can do about it. It was difficult,” she said. “I felt like I had to grow up a little bit more and let go of my childhood.”
Despite being a good student, school was a big adjustment.
Learning English was an obvious hurdle. “It was frustrating not being able to communicate with my teacher,” Ardon said. “But I liked it here. I could feel free again, I could play outside, nobody knew us, and I was happy.”
Illness and mental health issues plagued her for the better part of her childhood, she said.
In her mid-teens she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and dealt with depression and anxiety, which she’s been told is linked to her PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). But she suspects a lot of her depression stemmed from adjusting to life as a child refugee.
“You come from a family of lawyers and yet they can’t do that here. Your friends make fun of you because your parents are janitors but you know they’re really not. Your friends look down upon them. It’s frustrating. You begin to wonder if every time you work hard for something, if it will just be taken away.”
All these things were too much for her. She dropped out of high school in Grade 10.
“I think people forget what it’s like for a child (refugee). You come here, all of the sudden you’re faced with child poverty, which is an increasing problem here in B.C.”
Despite the struggles her family faced, Ardon says she feels privileged to be Canadian.
“As I grew up, I began to learn more about my country and how it’s still tearing itself apart through gangs and how it’s gotten worse,” said Ardon. “My roots can be Salvadoran, my values may be a little bit different, but I enjoy Canada. I love the equality we have here. I love the democracy we have here. I love the freedom of speech we have here…. I’m so thankful that I’m here because I’m free to be whoever I want to be.”
Today, Ardon is working toward high school equivalency at the Invergarry Adult Education Centre. She also served as a research assistant in the Our Community, Our Voice Refugee (OCOV) Integration and Settlement Research Project (primarily run at SFU), which aims to find the challenges, barriers and opportunities of Surrey refugees.
Ardon said the project is about learning what gaps exist.
“We only know so much. I come from an educated family, but what happens when you don’t come from an educated family?” she asked. “What happens when you’re not government-sponsored (as I was)?”
Tara Holt is the principal of Invergarry Adult Education Centre, which serves roughly 1,500 people, many of them newcomers. She is also a principal researcher in the OCOV project.
Fascinated by the refugee experience, Holt penned a paper exploring how refugees integrate into schools using frontline support workers, called settlement workers. Surrey is one of 20 districts in the province that utilizes them.
These workers help by connecting newcomers to services such as legal aid, language training and medical needs. Connecting refugees to these services can prove challenging, Holt noted, as the stress of their situation “is likely fraught with culture shock, poverty, health concerns, and a variety of other problems.”
She discusses “rethinking” of school roles in her paper, presenting the idea that there is an increasing mandate of public education to undertake much larger issues than a traditional knowledge-based delivery of education to one that encapsulates a greater emphasis on social needs and attention to preparing students beyond academic readiness to include a complete understanding for future success in society. Holt notes the settlement worker program is doing just that.
Through her work as principal of Invergarry, she’s seen many success stories first-hand.
“I have a great deal of respect for what they go through, the hardship that they come through, and sometimes don’t come through,” said Holt. “Now my focus is on the success because I just see the resiliency in these people. It’s incredible.”
Ardon – one of three refugee research assistants working on the forthcoming paper – is an example of that, she added.
“They’re making a difference. They’re passionate about making a difference in Surrey. They’ve shown what can be done.”
Coun. Judy Villeneuve, co-chair of the Surrey Local Immigrant Partnership, said newcomer education is a struggle in Surrey, but noted the school district is especially stretched. Child immigrants face a particularly tough challenge when it comes to adjusting to a new culture, she noted.
“Our schools are crowded…. They don’t really have the people they need to deal with the individual students who are struggling,” said Villeneuve.
“Young people learn quickly given the opportunity, given a safe and supportive environment. Difficulties arise when there’s exclusion or bullying, or a sense they can’t fit in or the challenge is just too great.”
Villeneuve stressed the need for proper investment when accepting more newcomers.
“Otherwise the city pays for repercussions or trouble on the streets or the poverty cycle getting stronger.”
Ardon says success for newcomers will come from how connected they are to resources in their new communities.
“I have always believed, and I will always believe that together we are stronger…. Making sure they have a good end point, where their family is stable, their income is stable, where kids don’t have to worry about growing up early, that would be the most important thing to me.”