Fabiola is the loving matriarch of a family of nine. After she and her family fled their home country of Colombia in order to escape persecution from the guerrillas, they were soon faced with a new form of persecution: that of Donald Trump’s America. After fearing for their lives in a second country, in 2018 they became some of the thousands of asylum seekers who fled to Canada to escape the United States. This is her story in her own words, translated into english, condensed, and edited.
In Colombia we had a family business– a factory where we manufactured cardboard boxes and sold them to businesses around Colombia
We had our factory for our whole lives– my husband’s father passed it down to him, and we worked there ever since we were young and recently married. Later we had kids, and they all worked there, and so did my brothers– everyone who worked there was family, it was our life’s work.
But that was a difficult time in Colombia because the economy was so bad. The guerilla started to go after us, and started forcing us to pay them what we call a “quota,” just so they would leave us alone. If we didn’t pay them, they would start to harass and pursue us, so we were forced to pay them this quota.
One day, we didn’t have enough money to pay the quota, and while my son was walking home two men came up to him on motorcycles and beat him up so badly that they almost killed him. And that’s when we realized that we needed to flee.
I said, “we need to get out of here because if not, we are going to die.”
After my son left the hospital we started the paperwork to get tourist visas to go to the US. [All nine of us] came together: my husband, my children, their partners and my grandchildren, everyone.
We came to New Jersey [in 2013], and lived near Union City for five years. We lived and worked there as undocumented people.
When we first got there, Obama was president, and we felt like we could live a more peaceful life.
We were living on the second floor of a building in a one-room apartment. We used wall dividers to make three rooms. About a year later my daughter and her husband moved downstairs, and then my son moved [into a different apartment], but we always lived together in the same building.
In the house we divided up the work. My daughter-in-law and I would cook the food and clean, and my daughter would take care of her kids, as well as two of our neighbor’s kids. Every night we would make a meal for everyone and pack lunches for the next day. I have a beautiful family, and we are always so united. Fridays were the best day because everyone would get to the house at the same time and we would cook a special meal, talk about what had happened to us that day, and remember Colombia.
We worked with “agencias.” They would call us and send us to work that day in whatever place needed help. Sometimes we would be in warehouses packing things into boxes, sometimes sewing, sometimes in a cookie factory, or folding clothes. Every day it was something new– wherever people were needed, they would bring us, hidden and under the table because we didn’t have documents.
When we first arrived in the US we came with dreams, even though we were living in a small room with everybody, we were happy. It was such a big step to come to the United States, and the first months were filled with happy memories. We said to ourselves, “we are going to work hard, and save money to start a business.”
We felt like we were moving on. But soon, it [began to feel] like we were back in the place that we had tried to escape.
From the minute Trump was elected, we all began to panic because we knew what was coming– he himself always said it. He would say, “when I arrive I don’t want undocumented people, I am going to do deportations.” And that was it, he got there and it began to happen everywhere.
And that was when the persecution started– that’s what I call it– the persecution of president Trump. The persecution was horrible, and it continues to be horrible in the US. They have gotten to the point where they are taking children away– children who are innocent have nothing to do with what is going on– and they take them away simply because someone is undocumented.
That was our biggest fear: that they would take our children away.
It was like living in a movie where we were always afraid, peering out the window to see if anyone was passing by. We would feel sad every time we looked at the kids, thinking how innocent they were, and that we may have brought them to a place where they were at risk. What were we going to do if they took our children away? The fear that we felt [in Colombia] came back.
People started getting deported and we felt like we had to hide so that no one deported us.
One day my nephew was working in a printing press and ICE arrived out of nowhere. They asked everyone to go outside into the parking lot and stand in a line. They went one by one down the line, asking people if they had papers. When they asked him “do you have papers?” he said “no I don’t.”
They put him in a car and took him to a prison, as if he had committed a crime.
We pulled together $10,000 for his bail, but the lawyer told us that in order to deposit it, someone with papers needed to go to the detention center and drop it off in person. But since none of us had papers, not even any of the people we knew, we could never get him out of there, and after almost four months, sadly, they deported him to Colombia
It was a terrible December– we couldn’t even go to see him.
[One day] my son told me “Mom, I am going to Canada because here they could take my children away.” He told me he had looked up how to cross, but we begged him “no, what if they detain you?” But he had a friend who had done it, and who told him not to worry.
So we all watched the videos he found on YouTube [about the crossing], but we were all so afraid. My son said, ‘well if they deport me, at least I’ll go to Colombia, but with my children.’ We were so scared that they would be taken away from us. They were born in the United States, and if [the officials] saw that we are undocumented, [we thought] that might happen.
The night before we all helped him pack a suitcase, we made him sandwiches. Everyone pooled together our money and gave it to him to take with him, because we didn’t know what would happen to him on his journey.
We were afraid, watching our cellphones and praying all night. When he crossed they took his phone away from him, but finally he communicated with us three days later that he had made it, that they had detained him for three days to process him, but he was not deported.
Fabiola’s son began the asylum process in Canada, and was able to successfully petition for his other family members to join him in the country legally. The family is in the final stages of securing their asylum claims. Fabiola works cleaning office buildings and says she dreams of starting a family business in Canada.