A NEW LIFE IN HAMILTON
Alvaro Beltran is one of hundreds of people who have fled across the Peace Bridge into Canada. For now, he is safe.
THERE ARE BROAD SMILES, BIG hugs and a few tears of joy — and perhaps relief — in the waiting area of the Newcomer Centre on the Fort Erie side of the Peace Bridge.
Alvaro Beltran’s long run from El Salvador’s notorious gangs is over, for now at least, and maybe forever.
The 25-year-old chef, who dreams of one day opening his own restaurant, has crossed the first hurdle to establishing a new life in Hamilton.
Beltran has been granted an exception to the Safe Third Country Agreement to enter Canada and make a refugee claim. If successful, he will become a permanent resident of Canada.
“I was praying to God and putting myself in His hands and hope that He’s going to make the doors open,” Beltran said.
“I’m excited to see new places and to have a regular, normal life,” he said.
“I just want to start to work and to start to make my English better,” he added. “I want to speak like a Canadian.” When last we saw Beltran, he had just arrived at the Vive centre in Buffalo, a converted school now bursting at the seams that provides shelter to refugees from across the U.S.
Beltran fled El Salvador with his mother and young sister, and for two years they lived in Maryland.
Then Donald Trump was elected president amid a wave of anti-immigrant fervour.
Like hundreds, or maybe thousands, of other people living in the U.S. with expired visas or no proper documentation, Beltran decided Canada was a better option for refugee claimants.
THE BELTRAN RELAXED laughing and joking at the Newcomer Centre is a far cry from the timid young man who arrived at Vive four weeks earlier.
“The most difficult part was waiting in Buffalo,” he said. “You don’t know when you’re going to be called.
“Then when you see your name on the list, it’s the most happy moment.”
In fact, it was only now that he revealed his proper name. Until this moment, he had been using his middle name Jose, because he was scared of what might happen to him if he wasn’t allowed to cross into Canada.
“I was nervous before because I didn’t know how long it was going to take or the process,” Beltran said.
“Now I feel more comfortable. Finally, I’m here.”
A BEAUTIFUL symmetry to Beltran’s story that brings a circle back to its starting point.
The most common exception used by refugee claimants to bypass the Safe Third Country Agreement is having a close family member already residing in Canada.
Beltran has named his aunt, Margaret Rivas of Hamilton, as his family member exception.
Four years ago, Rivas decided to flee El Salvador with her daughter, who was 24 at the time.
Rivas, now 52, was a bank manager in Sonsonate, a small city west of the capital, San Salvador. Gang members were pressuring her to steal money from the bank to give to them.
“It was a very dangerous situation,” said Rivas. “My family was in danger.”
Two of her sisters already lived in Canada, one in Montreal, the other in Toronto. Yet Rivas’s first thought was to head to the U.S.
“They told me ‘Why would you go to the U.S.A.? If you have problems, you have two sisters here and we can help you,’” she said. “‘Canada is a good country and Canada helps people who have problems like yours.’”
So Rivas and her daughter flew to New York’s J.F.K. airport then took a bus to Buffalo. They spent a week at the Vive centre then they crossed the Peace Bridge for their appointment with the Canada Border Services Agency.
Like her nephew four years later, Rivas sat in this same Newcomer Centre, waiting to hear if Canada would let her in to file a refugee claim. Now she’s back at the centre to drive Beltran to Hamilton, and she admits it’s a bit emotional.
“It’s a mix of good memories and bad because it was a difficult situation to leave our country,” said Rivas. “To leave my mom in my country was very difficult.
“I felt very happy because I was in a safe country that I knew Canada would be, but I felt sad because I left my country and part of my family, my friends, my work.”
To close the circle completely, Rivas and her daughter stayed at Micah House, a refugee emergency shelter, when they first arrived in Hamilton. Same for Beltran.
Four years later, Rivas loves Canada and Hamilton. She marvels at the little freedoms that are often taken for granted here, like parents being able to safely take their children to a park.
“You can walk with your cellphone, with your laptop, with your money,” she said. “In my country, that’s impossible.”
She is a permanent resident and has another year before she can apply for Canadian citizenship. Will she?
“Yes, of course,” she says quickly, almost indignantly. “I want to be a Canadian citizen.”
A WIDE GRIN, Beltran says he got an early jump on preparing for life in Canada. He started drinking Tim Hortons coffee when he was in Buffalo.
He’s now preparing for his hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board, which is scheduled for June 20.
If he’s accepted into the country permanently, one of his first goals is to acquire the Canadian equivalent of the culinary arts certificate he earned in El Salvador.
After that, he hopes to add his personal touch to the growing number of Latin American eateries popping up in Hamilton.
Assuming he’s allowed to stay here, of course.
“I know it’s not over fully, but I’m just happy to be here,” he said. “Step by step.”
Alvaro Beltran celebrates with his aunt, Margaret Rivas, after clearing the first hurdle to join her in Hamilton permanently.
Margaret Rivas, aunt of Alvaro Beltran, cries while discussing her own refugee flight to Canada.