More than a decade after violence tore apart a Colombian family, members reunite in Canada with assistance from MCC and an Alberta congregation.
On Sept. 29, 1996, as Marly Yanez and her family gathered in their home in northeast Colombia for a birthday celebration, armed men stormed in and began shooting.
Yanez, who was 9, watched in horror as her mother was killed. “They said she was working for the government,” Yanez says. “But the only thing my mom did was sell food. She sold food to everyone. She was innocent.”
Caught in Colombia’s long-running armed conflict between the government and paramilitary and guerrilla groups, the family’s sense of safety and home was shattered.
Fearing further retribution, Yanez’s father sent Yanez and her three older sisters to separate locations to live with relatives and her brother to another region of Colombia. “And then we didn’t even have family,” she says.
For years, she and her sisters lived in fear, hiding their identities and moving frequently. Her brother, who became a police officer, was killed.
Yanez says things began to change for her when she and her husband, Arbey Gutierrez, were granted refugee status by the Canadian government. They arrived in Calgary, Alberta, in July 2007.
It was a bittersweet time. Yanez was thrilled by the prospect of new opportunity in Canada, but haunted by feelings of responsibility for her sisters left behind in Colombia.
She says the family had vowed that the first one to make it to safety would clear the way for the others. “When I came to Canada with my husband I was the lucky one. I was the first one to get a better lifestyle and I had to help the others.”
Within days of arriving in Calgary, Yanez was going from church to church. She asked for help with bringing nine members of her family to Canada — her three sisters, their husbands and three children. “We met lots of people who said we are sorry for your situation, but we have a small church and we cannot bring so large a family,” she says.
At the same time, she was working long hours as a cleaning woman to help support her family in Colombia and consoling her sisters as they waited to come.
In 2009, after almost two years of searching, she heard about MCC and found the MCC Alberta office in Calgary. Orlando Vasquez, now MCC Alberta’s program director, says MCC Alberta staff understood Yanez’s distress. Refugee families “have survived war and persecution in their home country,” he says. “Then they come here and have relatives overseas going through that problem and they don’t have a way to help.”
Since 1979, MCC Canada’s refugee assistance program has enabled congregations and other sponsoring groups to fund one-year sponsorships for more than 15,000 people resettling in Canada.
The program matches sponsors with refugees who qualify for resettlement in Canada and helps both parties with information, training and other supports.
MCC can’t help meet the needs of every refugee. Due to recent legislative changes, for instance, today Yanez and her sisters would no longer be eligible to apply for refugee status in Canada while living in Colombia. But throughout the years, MCC has worked alongside refugees to help them understand their options under current law, learn about available resources and connect with sponsors when possible.
At first, staff at MCC said they might be able to help bring one couple to Canada. Yanez was devastated. “For me to choose just one was very difficult,” she recalls. “I said all of them are in danger.” Yanez persisted, asking MCC to reconsider and saying she would pay $5,000 of the sponsorship costs. Moved by her determination, MCC staff members searched for sponsorship options, including approaching a Mennonite church more than 600 miles north of Calgary. The La Crete Christian Fellowship ( LCCF ) has an emergency assistance fund for refugees.
Jake Elias has been a member of LCCF for almost 20 years and was treasurer when the fund was established. He says it’s designed for cases such as Yanez’s. “ MCC is the relief wing of our church and it does great work. They shouldn’t have to rely on donations from individuals. We churches have to do our part,” he says.
The LCCF fund covered the bulk of the costs of bringing Yanez’s family to Calgary. Yanez contributed $5,000 from her income.
In July 2010, the nine newcomers arrived — co-sponsored as refugees by Yanez and the LCCF.
“I wasn’t alone anymore,” Yanez says, recalling that moment. “I was feeling like this is really my country, because my family is here.”
As she sits in her home, surrounded by family, Yanez describes MCC and LCCF as gifts from God.
“The best thing that ever happened to me is to find them,” Yanez says. “Many churches said there’s nothing we can do. MCC didn’t say no. They said we will see. We will try to find a solution. And they did. What they did I will never forget.”