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.

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE BUIST

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.”

THERE’S

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.”

WITH

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.

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