Claudia Aristizabal, 40, is trying to explain why the Canadian government won’t let her stay in her home.
She speaks in a soft, steady voice, occasionally turning to her daughter, Jessica, when she’s unsure of an English word. Mrs. Aristizabal and Jessica, 19, face deportation back to Colombia. And Jessica’s nine-week-old son Jonathan – a Canadian citizen by birth – may be left in Canada.
Staff and students at Corpus Christi Catholic Secondary School in Burlington, Ont., are rallying behind Ms. Aristizabal, who works there as the daytime custodian.
“To meet her, you instantly like her,” said Melissa Moore-Broglio, who teaches business at the school. “But you can see the sadness in her eyes.”
Ms. Aristizabal said her life would be in danger if she returns to Colombia. She fled the country six years ago after her brother was shot in front of her. The men who killed him raped her and her sister-in-law, she said.
The two of them, along with Jessica and her other daughter, Marcela, fled to Mexico, and then bought their way across the border into the United States. They arrived in Burlington in 2008, after hearing it was a good place to raise a family.
Ms. Aristizabal and her daughters volunteered with the local food bank and Habitat for Humanity for the first few months, later finding paid work.
“We have been here doing everything right and legal,” Ms. Aristizabal said. “We just want to live a normal life, and peaceful.”
She calls the Burlington high school, where she has worked for 15 months, a second home, and said the staff and students are like family.
“Even if I have to go and clean a toilet, I do it with love,” she said.
“The kids love her, the staff love her,” said Judy Caruso, a secretary at Corpus Cristi. “I don’t know anything about politics. I just know there’s a good person who’s in danger of going back to a country that isn’t safe.”
Grade 12 student Emma Harper is co-director of a student social-justice group. She said they’ve been trying to raise support for Ms. Aristizabal by telling her story on websites such as Facebook and Tumblr.
Staff members have also raised $4,000 in personal donations to help pay for a new lawyer to try to appeal the deportation, Ms. Caruso said.
A federal court is currently deciding whether to hear an appeal, said Richard Wazana, who is representing the women. He said he expects an answer in the coming weeks – but the women are scheduled to be deported in early January.
“It’s kind of a race to see what’s going to come first – the removal or the court’s decision,” Mr. Wazana said.
Anna Pape, a spokesperson for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, said in an e-mail that refugee claimants must show a “well-founded fear of persecution” if returned to their home country.
The conditions of a refugee claimant’s home country is one factor considered by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. The board’s research documents on Colombia include a January, 2011, report from Human Rights Watch that notes armed groups such as the one described by Ms. Aristizabal “continue to carry out serious abuses against civilians,” including “killings, rapes and forced displacement.”
However, the women’s refugee status was denied in 2009. Ms. Aristizabal said immigration officials told her they didn’t believe her story and asked for evidence of her ordeal – which she said she doesn’t have.
“When you run away, you don’t think about it. You just run for your life,” she said.
The family was supposed to be deported in October, but were given an extension because it was unsafe for Jessica, then 33 weeks pregnant, to fly. The deportation was pushed back to Jan. 2, but has been delayed again by the family court date, set for Jan. 6.
Jonathan’s 21-year-old father has taken Jessica to court for full custody, Jessica said.
At their first court date, Jessica said the judge told her that, as Jonathan is a Canadian citizen, it wasn’t safe for him to go back to Colombia with her.
“If I was a bad mother, okay – but I’m not,” Jessica said. “Just because I’m a teenager does not mean I’m irresponsible or immature.”
If they remain in the country, Jessica wants to get the two credits she needs to graduate high school, and then go to college for hairstyling. Ms. Aristizabal would also like to go to school to become a nurse. But that will have to wait until they learn whether they can stay in Canada.
“A miracle can happen – you never know,” Ms. Aristizabal said.
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