Emigrating Toward a Safer Life
Editor’s Note: Leaving behind family and balmy tropical year-round weather and the black sand beaches of El Salvador, Oliver re-settled in the rainy gray climate of the North Atlantic where he knew no one. But that is what this young man felt he needed to do to find safety from a gang.
Several years ago a mutual friend introduced us to this Salvadoran youth, Oliver (a pseudonym), he was able to rescue from a desperate situation nearly costing Oliver his life. It involved members of a gang who had been bullying and intimidating him and his family over a period of time. It began with badgering him in his school, then infiltrating into his dad’s business forcing him to close it, and further pressuring the family to leave the church which was in gang territory. It culminated in the gang literally bursting into his home aggressively pistol-whipping him nearly to death in front of his family and threatening him that the next time would be certain death. Oliver escaped in the middle of the night to stay with our mutual friend. He recognized that by removing himself from his home, he might be able to prevent further terroristic threats and escalation against himself as well as his family.
We often wondered what happened to this courageous, outgoing young man who had many skills, a positive forgiving attitude, and strong faith. Thanks to a three-country What’s Ap conversation, we were pleased to catch up with him in Ireland as well as with his friend in El Salvador who rescued him and sheltered him from those dangers until he left the country.
Here is an update on his life as it continues to unfold. Oliver shares:
“Things were showing no promise for me in El Salvador. I had lost my job through no fault of my own. My whole work team was released on a day I wasn’t even assigned to work. I have mechanical skills and had hoped to start a business with a friend but he backed out and I did not have enough financial resources to go into business on my own. I didn’t have sufficient funds to return to school to train in another field. Not only were all my career possibilities going nowhere, but also my personal life was not much better. I was not free to go visit my family with the gang looming in the area. In short, I simply was becoming more and more unhappy and saw no future for myself. The one positive part of my life was volunteering with youth in the inner-city church.
“A friend in the UK invited me to come visit. It was good timing to give me a change of scenery and see what would develop. I simply needed to be far away. I was able to get a tourist visa. In 2018 I left El Salvador. Once I was in the UK, I realized I could not return to El Salvador and face the danger of the gangs again. I needed a fresh start and applied as an asylum seeker after being there for six months. The basis of my status was the danger of the gangs. Along with my application I sent photos of my severe beating as well as letters of reference by church officials to authenticate my story. Of course, I was not permitted to work during that time until I received approval of my asylum status which I did eventually receive.
“When that declaration arrived, I could apply for work. I was willing to try a variety of jobs, so I worked at a car wash, as a mechanic at a garage; however, my English was not proficient enough at that point to be effective, at the Red Cross with the asylum team or at a warehouse. I remained in the UK for three years. I began taking English classes as well as making an effort to learn the language in the everyday conversation from people I met on the street. From there I continued to study earning my Master’s degree in social work.
“When my English became more proficient, I began searching for a full-time job. During the pandemic I felt called to reach out to the vulnerable. I applied and was hired by the United Methodist Church as a missionary in Ireland. The name of my position is Global Mission Fellows, a two-year program for young adults. They have a strong emphasis on faith and justice. The website lists their goal as “partners with community organizations to address a variety of issues, including migratory immigration, education, public health, and poverty.” Currently I work in a three-member team serving the young 20 to 30 year-old homeless folks. Many have drug and mental health issues. Part of the work consists of working in a hostel; another part of it is drop-in care where clients receive meals and medications. We use a holistic approach in our treatment. This job is a good fit for me and builds on my past success in working with youth in my church in El Salvador. I feel good about making a difference in the lives of these people I am serving.
“In the UK I was unable to find a Lutheran church other than in two larger cities. The Church of England, which I joined, is dominant. I don’t get too concerned with labels. I consider myself a Christian. The ongoing conflict between the Protestant and the Catholic churches from the 18th century flared up in the 1990s and continues in Ireland. I live on the Catholic side of town but work on the Protestant side and have learned to stay very quiet and unbiased. Some people are extreme and eccentric. I try to stay away from those people and not get involved.
“For fun I belong to two football teams – one with the residents I work with, the other with members of the church. I also get exercise by walking and biking. Sometimes I take the train, bus, or ride my bike to sightsee this new country.
“The UK is more inclusive in terms of all the diverse cultures that have emigrated there. In my housing area where I rented a room there were folks from Japan, the Middle East, and lots of other countries with various faiths and cultures. They would invite me to socialize with them. That is not true here in Ireland, where 98% of the people are Irish who stick to themselves. You just don’t see Hispanic people. In Dublin there are two Venezuelans. A friend teased me there are .0000001 Hispanics, and I am the one. Loneliness does challenge me. I am by nature an outgoing, gregarious person.” ( Our mutual friend chimes in that Oliver is happiest when there are a minimum of 20 people around the table.)
Asked what he misses from El Salvador besides his family, he responds he misses the beach which was an hour away. He enjoys cooking and has been trying to replicate Salvadoran foods such as pupusas in Ireland; this can be a challenge without proper ingredients.
“I did find corn flour at the local Asian market. When I make Salvadoran food, people love it.”
Asked what has been difficult adjusting to, Oliver laments, “ the weather. In El Salvador it is warm year-round, of course, whereas in Ireland it is always gray — cold, dreary, and rainy much of the year although summer is pretty.
“On the positive side my brother who is living in the U.S. and who rarely contacted us in El Salvador has been reaching out to me here in Ireland where it is safer for him to do so. He is still afraid to return to El Salvador due to several past immigration experiences landing him in prison.
When asked if he would return to El Salvador, Oliver responds that things would need to improve first. He won’t even consider it for at least ten years.
“I have been blessed to have many people in my life offering to help me – my family, friends, and members of the church have all reached out to me when I needed it. I can’t be with most of them now but stay connected through social media.
“In terms of my future goals, I am keeping my options open. My work contract goes through 2023. I could re-negotiate it if my employer and I choose. I also have friends in Spain and Italy.
Something I am considering is being a translator or a teacher. I would need three to six months study to be a certified translator or six months to be certified as a teacher.
“Although it took me eleven months to get due to COVID, I now hold a United Nations passport. This document opens new possibilities and new freedoms. It is good until 2024. If I live here for three years, I can apply for residency. After five years I can apply for permanent status.
I love my home country of El Salvador and miss my family and friends but every young person is at risk of the gangs which is so unfortunate. In some ways I feel some guilt for leaving my family behind. Rationally I know I had to do it to protect all of us, but the guilt remains and will take me years to learn to deal with it.
“Here in my newly adopted country I mostly feel safe from threats and danger. However, some days certain triggers make my reflexes jump in alarm. For example, in El Salvador’s busy city traffic if cars drive by you, suddenly stop, then drive past a second time and stop, you can expect them to lower their windows with guns aimed at you. That is just a common, uneasy dread you live with. Here when I am in traffic and a car suddenly stops, my mind assumes a gun is going to pop out of a window. It’s just an automatic response ingrained in my mind. What is helping me cope is learning Pilates and yoga exercises from some other asylum seekers from India. These meditative exercises are extremely effective in helping me feel more secure.
“Tattoos in El Salvador are strongly associated with the gangs and have a negative connotation. Different gangs have different tattoos connected with them. Here in Ireland youth may have tattoos, but they are worn more as body art to be admired. It is a positive refreshing change”.
Editor’s Note: We are so impressed with how Oliver has been able to pick up and move half-way around the world adapting to another culture while remaining positive about what lies ahead. He is able to learn a new language, find full-time employment based on his skill set, research the steps required for a passport and citizenship, and is already looking ahead for future possibilities that will enhance his life. It is encouraging to find such an uplifting positive spirit-led person who gives credit to others as blessings in his life.
We hope to remain in touch with this delightful optimistic young man.