Sizzling yellow empanadas, rich black coffee, and snap-shots of Colombia enlivened the space where we sat, with photos of the Rolon family’s lives sprawled over rose-coloured walls like ivy – they ushered me into this, their St. Catharine’s home. The photos weren’t of the professionally captured kind, but the day-to-day growing up, ripped jeans, silly faces, memory-window kind. They were photos of plantain harvests, a simple wedding dress, baby baptisms, coconut ice cream, snakes, sugar cane, mountain cats, and Christmas feasts. They were photos of Niagara Falls, Ontario beaches, and Bethany Community Church picnics, picnics, and more picnics. I’d be shown these and many more for hours under the dining room light, when albums would be pulled out in piles while many hands and flow of translated Spanish interpreted the prints to me, unveiling their history as much as they could to someone so unfamiliar with what it would ever be like to walk in their shoes, and step back into the picture.
The Rolon family came to Canada as a part of Mennonite Central Committee’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, where communities admirably respond to the call to walk alongside families desperately searching for home after losing theirs. The relationships cultivated through this process often grow deep, as sponsorship is not merely about finding food and furniture, but friendship and even family. Stories are not surface level for refugee families like the Rolon’s, though it wasn’t until landing at the Toronto Pearson Airport that they could speak about the reasons they fled the mountains without deep-seated fear. Their stories are shared for the benefit of the listener and the speaker.
The Rolon’s fled the country-side of Colombia where their farm was a battlefield between paramilitary and guerrilla fighters. Gregoria, Mother of the family, describes the deaths and threats they faced, “In 2002, one of my brothers-in-law was killed on the same day my father-in-law disappeared. He still has not been found. In 2001-2003, two uncles of mine and one cousin were killed.” Shortly after, she lost her first husband and father of their five children in addition to the eight other close family and friends killed before they managed to escape. Gregoria received the death certificate and skeleton of her husband while her daughter Sonia who has Hemophilia was also facing the same fate. Miraculously Sonia survived. However, this period of loss was followed by four years of extreme poverty in the city of Bogota before the family was sponsored by Bethany Church. This community had just sponsored another refugee family and felt out of resources, yet still called to support the Rolon’s as well.
In reference to George, one of the most dedicated sponsors from Bethany Church, Sonia cracks a smile full across her face as she says “Grandpa...” A word that she at one point thought would never again cross her lips. The Rolon’s memories have not been erased or replaced, but family has taken on a new meaning as Bethany grasped the mystery of family that grows through relationship extended in support and mutual growth. From medical appointments to rides to work to birthday parties, a new home is being forged as the photos pile up. “Love the stranger as yourself,” Leviticus 19:34. Is there room on our walls for extended family?
Sonia Rolon: [translates for her mother] My mother every day she gives thanks to God to bring us here, and for those people that he put in our way – like Moses and people from Bethany Church. She says that if they didn’t help, maybe she wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be alive.