In the shadow of night eight days ago, a group of men and their sleepless families drove from their concrete homes in a hardscrabble district of Lima and headed to the airport to catch a 5:39 a.m. flight to Canada.
The 25 or so family members formed a picture of joy and apprehension. Inside the terminal, one man clutched his ailing baby boy and started to cry. A 24-year-old embraced his young family and looked forward to joining his father in Canada. Others snapped photos of the heady moment.
For the eight Peruvian men boarding the Taca Airlines flight that morning, it was the start of a journey that was to bring their families a better life – a roof that doesn’t leak, more meat for the supper table, an education for their children.
Only three days later, the journey was over. Five of the eight men were dead; three were injured, their futures in doubt.
The van crash in Hampstead, Ont., that killed 11 men last Friday had an impact that was felt thousands of kilometres away, nowhere more sharply than along the rutted and dusty streets of Comas on the outskirts of the thronging capital of Lima.
Here, inside roughly built homes on treeless streets, wives, cousins and grandmothers gathered on worn couches and white plastic chairs this week, left to ponder how they will now survive with families’ sole breadwinners gone. They already had little; now they had less.
“I know I have to be strong, for my children,” said Giovanna Figueroa de Alba, a six-month-old baby in her arms and a quiet 14-year-old son seated nearby. Her voice cracked. “But this is terrible.”
The tragedy cast a light on the lives of struggling families a world away from Canada, who are eager to do jobs Canadians increasingly shun. Mrs. Figueroa's husband, Javier Abelardo Aldo Medina, was one of the men who boarded the flight from Lima last Friday, only to be injured in the van crash on his first day on the job.
Before leaving Lima, Mr. Aldo had been a taxi driver, part of the vast majority of Peruvian workers without formal, steady work. Although Peru’s economy has grown in recent years, not everyone has benefitted equally. Many Peruvians eke out a living and are lucky to make the minimum wage, the equivalent of about $250 a week.
A job at the MARC Poultry chicken-vaccination operation was a coveted prize in Comas, a densely packed district at the spurs of the Andean foothills that sprang to life as a shantytown about 50 years ago. Men able to secure a job at the Canadian operation were connected to the Peruvian-born owner through family, marriage or their neighbourhood.
Backbreaking work and long separation from loved ones – the men signed two-year contracts – were the price for being able to wire regular remittances home.
“For these men, Canada is a dream,” said economics professor Eduardo Morón, a former deputy minister in the Peruvian government. “Many in Peru live with an underemployment problem. The payoff for migrating for work is really high.”
So when Mr. Aldo embraced his wife at the airport last Friday, it was with a promise he would send money back soon. The couple dreamed of covering their cement floors and replacing the bamboo roofing that leaked during rainfalls. Getting into their home involves stepping up steep and rickety wooden stairs.
More pressing, the couple’s baby had been hospitalized for a variety of ailments and had medical expenses.
Mr. Aldo told his wife of an ambition that can be heard in any of the poor communities around the globe that provide the sweat and muscle for Canada’s farming operations. “I want my children to have an education and profession, so they improve themselves,” he said.
On the night of the crash, Mr. Aldo was tired so he went to the back of the van to try to get some sleep; it’s what may have saved his life. He told his wife that he and another man, Juan José Ariza, were both in the van’s rear seats; after the impact, both lay injured but alive.
“Don’t die, please don’t die,” he said. “Help will come.”
In the Valdiviezo household in Comas, the pull of a decent wage and better future pushed a son last Friday to follow his father in the fateful journey north. In 2008, José Mercedes Valdiviezo Taboada left home to work at MARC Poultry. He earned enough money to wire cash home twice a month, enough for his family to buy new clothes, bunk beds and a large stereo system; on a visit in 2010, Mr. Valdiviezo came laden with a new laptop computer and a Sony camera.
It’s what prodded his son, 24-year-old Fernando, to fly off last Friday to join his father in Southern Ontario. Until recently, Fernando worked selling used cars and motorcycles in Lima. He wanted a better life for his wife and three-year-old daughter.
On Saturday, two days before he was to start his new job, Fernando posted a message on his Facebook page to his wife and daughter.
“For my two loves, far away from them for something good,” he wrote. “I love them both.”
By Monday, he was dead. Back in Comas, his mother sat in mourning in the family home, grieving for a lost husband and a son.
With the shock of the accident now ebbing, wives and widows in Comas are turning to the grim task of retrieving their wounded spouses or repatriating their bodies. For those who lost their husbands, the grieving is incomplete; without a body, they mourn with whatever they can.
In the spare entrance room at the Comas home of Patricia Aguilar, an informal altar has taken form to the memory of her husband, Enrique Arturo Arenaza León.
Six-foot, outgoing and generous, he had played for the Alianza Lima soccer club in the mid-80s. He cheated death once in 1987, when he famously overslept and missed his team's chartered flight, which crashed into the Pacific Ocean and killed 43 people aboard. This time, luck wasn't on his side.
Laid out neatly on a table is Mr. Arenaza’s best polyester suit, a series of photos, and a long-burning white candle. A large poster of him hangs on the wall, showing a broadly smiling man. His memory lives “in the hearts of all,” it reads.
In a fateful twist, it was Ms. Aguilar who secured the job in Canada for her husband. She had grown up with Alejandro Carrion, the owner of MARC Poultry, whose home was across the street from hers. She had personally asked him to give her husband a job.
Now, she wonders if she will receive an indemnity for her husband’s death. As of Thursday, she had not heard from anyone from the company.
“My husband supported me and our children,” she said. “Now I am both their father and mother.”