Lillian Montenegro left Guatemala in 1994, fleeing her country’s thirty six year civil war. She went to the United States seeking a stable place to start her family. Settling in California, she gave birth to two children. For ten years, Montenegro worked to get her status, but after exhausting all her options she soon learned she had been denied. Continuing her struggle for survival, she headed north to Canada with her family.
Crossing the border to Canada in 2004, she faced an unforeseen obstacle. Her husband was refused entry. Desperate for a stable new life, she and her two children continued on and applied for refugee status. Soon after, she learned she was pregnant with her third child.
Without her husband, Montenegro continued to face obstacles. Her child was born nine months after she and her other two children settled in Hamilton. Needing assistance with her newborn baby, she began to receive services from the Healthy Babies, Healthy Children program, which connected her to the community.
“The workers there helped more than I ever could imagine. I was getting tremendous help in parenting and emotional support at a time when I needed it most,” she said.
Her day-to-day life was filled with language barriers that made her adaptation and integration even more difficult. Being a single mother of three small children combined with a language barrier was overwhelming. There were so many issues she needed to resolve in order to stabilize: immigration, parenting young children and cultural shock.
Devastation hit when she learned her refugee claim had been denied. Her Settlement Counselor at the Immigrant Women’s Centre was able to support her through the process.
“She helped me with all immigration and other issues. She connected me with many programs at the IWC as well as many other service providers in Hamilton. I was very fortunate to have all these services when I was lost walking a rough road full of obstacles. She empowered me, giving me tools to work on my issues”, she explained.
In 2007, Montenegro’s only immigration option was to apply for Permanent Residence on Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds. That also required financial self-support for her family. The only job she could find was cleaning during the night which made it difficult to organize child care and find time to rest.
After two years of working nights, she became exhausted. Not knowing the result of her immigration status had affected her mental and physical health. Her children asked questions about the absence of their father, but she had no answers. Her marriage was beginning to fall apart and her financial situation was unstable.
“I was about to give up and leave Canada,” she said. “I was so tired of waiting and struggling financially. Thankfully, my sister and settlement services helped me regain the strength to continue working on my immigration issues.”
Not long after, Citizenship and Immigration Canada began contacting her regularly to ask questions about her life. In June of this year, she received a letter announcing their decision: she and her children could stay.
“They gave you permission to stay in my country,” her six year old Canadian born daughter said, beaming with excitement.
One week later on June 21, Montenegro and her family woke up early to sign the permanent resident papers. “It is special to me that this was the same morning as National Aboriginal Day, when First Nations people gathered at City Hall to perform a sunrise ceremony,” she said. For Montenegro, that day was a beautiful sunrise indeed.
After fleeing Guatemala seventeen years ago, she is now feeling at peace in her home.
“I am sharing my story with other people to give the hope to all those who are walking a similar path. I also want them to take from my experience: Don’t walk alone. Let settlement services empower you. Receive it as a beautiful gift.”
-Nada Tuta, Immigrant Women’s Centre | Photo by Michelle Drew