Wider Horizons

“IN OUR POSITION IT WAS DIFFICULT. WE HAD A LIFE IN COLOMBIA, BUT WE NEEDED TO CHOOSE. WE NEEDED TO GO, OR WE STAY IN COLOMBIA AND WAIT FOR DEATH.”

MAUREN GAITÁN PÉREZ


In the early days of January 2022, Alejandra Jiménez Pérez, Johana Sabogal González and Mauren Gaitán Pérez faced an impossibly simple choice.

They had spent years in their home country of Colombia organizing meetings, protests and workshops supporting the LGBTQ+ community and causes. But now that work had provoked credible death threats from the “Black Eagles,” a paramilitary group that was known for targeting social leaders. Although the three young women shared the pamphlets containing death threats with local authorities, and then followed up with their ongoing concerns, nothing was done.

“My brother had been killed by the Black Eagles for his work,” says Gaitán. “In our position it was difficult. We had a life in Colombia, but we needed to choose. We needed to go, or we stay in Colombia and wait for death.”

So they left.

The journey they faced was risky – at one point they were literally lost in a desert – but with a cousin waiting in Lethbridge, the three eventually made their way to Canada. They arrived on Feb. 6, 2022. It was snowing. And although it took a few seasons to really feel it, it was a place that would soon feel like home.

Today, the three students are completing English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at Lethbridge College’s English Language Centre and making plans for continued education and careers in Canada. During their time at the college, they have been cheered on and supported by people like Karen Smith, the centre’s manager, as well as their instructors and fellow classmates.

 

 

“The journey of each of our students is so unique,” says Smith. “As I listen to the narratives of our students, particularly those from conflict-torn regions, I’m reminded of the immense fortitude within the human spirit. Their journeys, marked by trials unimaginable to many, stand as a testament to the enduring quest for personal and political freedom. Their resilience, their sheer determination in the face of hardship, transforms them into unsung heroes of our time.

“And in the stories of these three strong young women, I find not just a reflection of their experiences, but also a mirror to my own journey,” says Smith, explaining that as a lesbian who came out in the 1990s, she faced discrimination and threats. “I am grateful for the privilege of calling Canada home, a sanctuary of safety and respect. Yet, with each tale shared, I am reminded of the weight of responsibility, the choice to bear witness to their struggles, and to honour their courage by amplifying their voices. In their stories lies the collective narrative of humanity’s triumph over adversity, and it is a privilege to stand alongside them, learning, advocating and celebrating their strength of spirit.”


Jiménez and Gaitán are cousins raised like sisters, and Jiménez and Sabogal are former spouses who remained very good friends. “She is like a member of my family,” says Gaitán of Sabogal. “I introduce her like my cousin. My family loves her. My mom says she is like a daughter, and my grandma says the same.”

Their journey from Colombia to Canada is laid out in clear and painful detail in the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada’s Notice of Decision following their hearing for refugee protection on Aug. 28, 2023.

At the hearing, the three women testified that they feared persecution by Las Aguilas Negras – the Black Eagles – who started making harassing telephone calls in 2019. In 2020, they began to receive pamphlets that listed their names and the word “DEATH” by each one. The pamphlets said they were leaders who needed to be eliminated as part of the Black Eagles’ “so-called democratic social cleansing,” and because they are open LGBTQ+ people who have been active in advocacy and promoting of the LGBTQ+ interests. The three also participated in national protests and marches on various social causes including against poverty and the economic challenges faced by Colombians.

In the spring of 2021, the three women filed their first complaint with the Attorney General’s office, but got no reply. Then in September 2021, Jiménez’s cousin – who lives in Lethbridge – travelled to Colombia to visit family. The three friends took the cousin out to a bar one night where they experienced an anti-LBGTQ+ act, which distressed the cousin. This “was the door to a conversation where we described the moment of life we were having because of our sexual orientation,” wrote Jiménez in the testimony shared at refugee hearing. “It was at this moment where she suggested the possibility of leaving the country to safeguard our lives.”

The harassing text messages, calls and intimidation continued, and by January 2022, Jiménez, Gaitán and Sabogal filed a second complaint with the Attorney General’s office. Again, there was no response. And so, on Jan. 31, they left. Their journey took them from Bogotá to Mexico City to Mexicali, where a “coyote” agreed to transport them across the border. That person handed them off to another van, and the people there began “to insult us, threaten us with firearms and put us in another van without telling us where we were going,” testified Jiménez. “These people left us abandoned in the middle of the desert with seven other people.”

“I think all the time that maybe we would die in the desert,” says Jiménez in an interview at Lethbridge College earlier this year. “In the desert we are lost for six hours. And we are walking, but I didn’t know the way.”

“We crossed the Brava River [Rio Grande] twice,” adds Gaitán. Making their way out of the desert “was a miracle,” Gaitán adds. “We are a miracle.”


Officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection picked up the group in American territory at 2 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2022, and took them to Yuma, Ariz. They were initially placed in a detention centre for one night, and then Jiménez and Gaitán were taken to a shelter, while Sabogal was taken to a cell for 24 hours. The next day, the three were reunited at the shelter. On Feb. 5, Jiménez’s cousin was able to buy airplane tickets for the trio, and the next day they flew to Great Falls, Mont., where the cousin’s husband picked them up and drove them to Lethbridge.

“Our first day we slept for maybe 12 hours,” says Gaitán, “and we took a hot shower and had clean clothes and real food. And our first morning here, we woke up and it was like, ‘we are in a dream.’”

Challenges continued however, as the three only stayed with Jiménez’s cousin until their work permits arrived. But the manager at Bully’s Casino who hired them to work as maintenance people also helped them with the references needed to find housing. “She was an angel,” says Gaitán. At about this same time, Jiménez, Gaitán and Sabogal came to Lethbridge College to ask about studying English and first met Karen Smith. While their work permits did not allow them to study, Smith “said she would keep her eyes on us,” says Gaitán. “When the refugee status came, we called and the next week we started our classes.”

In the interim, they spent about three months working at Bully’s before being hired for a second job working as packaging technicians at PepsiCo. Today, Gaitán is working full time as a pit boss at Pure Casino Lethbridge while Jiménez and Sabogal continue to work at PepsiCo. Eventually, all three are looking to continue their studies in Canada – Jiménez in psychology, Gaitán in art studies; and Sabogal in modern languages – and are eager to build careers in the community.

 

 


ARRIVING IN A FEBRUARY COLD SPELL, “WE THOUGHT THIS CITY WAS A GHOST CITY. BUT HERE I PUSH MYSELF IN MY FRUSTRATION. NOW I LIKE THIS CITY. IT GIVES ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO KNOW PEOPLE. I LOVE THE PEOPLE HERE. I LOVE TO FEEL FREE.”

ALEJANDRA JIMÉNEZ PÉREZ


None of the three students had much experience speaking English before arriving in Canada. The learning curve has been steep, all three say, especially as mature learners in their early 30s. But since starting classes in the second half of September, they’ve made great progress.

“I really like to study here at Lethbridge College, because I improve my English a lot,” says Sabogal. “I speak with my coworkers now. Before at PepsiCo I would only say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and now I speak with my coworkers and understand them. I speak with my classmates, and it is hard because we all have different accents. But I like this part of my life. Now I try to talk with people in the classroom and it’s so good.”

Lethbridge College started offering English as a Second Language in 1970 as a program for Tibetan refugees, and since then, the English Language Centre has welcomed thousands of students from all over the world, as well as newcomers to Canada, in a variety of different types and levels of programming.

 

 

Today, the ESL program is offered three full semesters each year, with classes from basic to advanced English. Students benefit from fully trained TESL-certified instructors, customized short- or long-term programs for groups of 20 or more and flexible start dates throughout the year. Over the last five years, about 1,500 students a year come from an average of 43 countries to learn English at Lethbridge College, with many of them going on to enrol in the college’s certificate, diploma and degree programs.

Jiménez, Gaitán and Sabogal say they would encourage other international students, refugees and new Canadians to study English at Lethbridge College. And despite the unconventional path they took getting here, Gaitán says she wouldn’t change a thing about their experience. “I think when we arrived here, we were different people,” Gaitán says. “And if I had the possibility to choose a different way, I think I would choose exactly the same way. These things that happened to us made us the human beings we are now.”


One of the biggest surprises for Jiménez, Gaitán and Sabogal is how quickly Canada in general – and Lethbridge in particular – have come to feel like home. “When I started to live here, I was thinking I did not like the city, the language, the people,” says Jiménez. Arriving in a February cold spell, “we thought this city was a ghost city. But here I push myself in my frustration. This is really important for me. Now I like this city. It gives me the opportunity to know people. I love the people here. I love to feel free. I miss my country, my family and my mom. But I feel good here.” 

Sabogal says when she was young, she liked to study different countries and was always intrigued by Canada. “I always dreamed to know the snow,” she says. “But when I arrived in my situation, I didn’t enjoy the snow. When I arrived, I didn’t feel that this is my home. But now I like to go outside and feel the snow, and I say, ‘this is my home now.’ And my family is the most important part of feeling at home.”

Gaitán agrees. “When we arrived here, it was so different. I missed my food, I missed my language,” she recalls. “But now I feel this is my home. Some days when I wake up, I think this is the smell of my home, this is the weather of my home. I find here the quiet life I like. Because we were from a big city and it’s like Toronto – the traffic is terrible, and it’s noisy and it’s so different here. We went to Montreal a few months ago to celebrate the birthday of Alejandra, and I thought ‘this is fine, but oh my goodness I miss Lethbridge so much.’

“I think the huge thing for me to feel at home is my family,” she adds. “Because I can’t imagine my life here without them. That is the most important thing for me.”


“WHEN I ARRIVED, I DIDN’T FEEL THAT THIS IS MY HOME. BUT NOW I LIKE TO GO OUTSIDE AND FEEL THE SNOW, AND I SAY, ‘THIS IS MY HOME NOW.’ AND MY FAMILY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF FEELING AT HOME.”

JOHANA SABOGAL GONZÁLEZ


THE PLACES WE CALL HOME

In the winter 2024 semester, Lethbridge College’s English Language Centre welcomed 165 students from 38 countries to learn English. Forty-two per cent came from Ukraine, nine per cent came from Syria and six per cent came from Somalia. The rest come from 35 other countries around the world. On average about 500 domestic and international students come to Lethbridge College to learn and improve their English language skills.

Starting in July 2025, the English Language Centre will offer a new summer program called A’pao’ohkoissksinnima (exploring). Students can spend three, four or seven weeks in Canada studying English and exploring the region’s natural beauty while learning about Blackfoot culture and history. Learn more about this and other ESL programs at lethbridgecollege.ca/elc.

Wider Horizons
Story by Lisa Kozleski / Photos by Rob Olson or supplied
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