Cesar’s story

Tasneem Jamal

Author
Carl Meyer

Published May 20, 2015 by Embassy, an Ottawa-based foreign policy weekly.

Cesar Jaramillo and his wife, Paula Cardenas, are two of many who made refugee protection claims at the Canada-United States land border in the last decade.

With no relatives in Canada and nowhere to go, they first ended up in 2005 at a Toronto refugee shelter with many others as they waited nervously for their claims to be processed.

But unlike some who fall through the cracks of Canada’s refugee regime, or who struggle to integrate into Canadian society, theirs is a story of extraordinary achievement in a short amount of time.

Already holding postsecondary education from their time in Colombia, the couple eventually obtained Canadian citizenship and Mr. Jaramillo worked factory shifts and then finished an undergraduate degree in political science, followed by a graduate degree in global governance, at the University of Waterloo. Ms. Cardenas has just completed a Master of Public Health at the university, and is currently staying home with their three-year-old twins Simon and Isabel.

When on a fellowship with the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., Mr. Jaramillo discovered Project Ploughshares, an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches which receives charitable donations and says it helps build peace and prevent war by working with governments, NGOs and churches around the world. Now, after several years working on space security and nuclear disarmament for the organization, he takes over July 1 as its next executive director.

Embassy caught up with Mr. Jaramillo in Ottawa last week to ask a few questions about his life and what he intends to focus on after assuming the directorship. The following interview has been edited for length and style:

Tell us your story.

“Where to begin? I’m originally from Colombia, born and raised. I came to Canada as an adult.

“I left Colombia with my wife; we had just recently been married when we came to Canada. And we came initially seeking…protected person status.

“That’s a whole other adventure, but just to frame the context that when we came, we came for security concerns that we had…

“You really don’t know what’s going on. You [hear about] people who had their claim accepted, and people who had their came rejected apparently who had similarly strong cases. So, just to emphasize lots of uncertainty initially. We came to Toronto, initially, we literally came to the border in Fort Erie…

“Several people already had relatives in Canada, so while they waited for their case to be processed, they’d say, ‘I have a brother in Edmonton,’ or ‘I have a sibling’ here or there, or in Toronto. We literally had no relatives in Canada. We left Colombia in 2004. I knew, just from schooling, a little bit about Canada; I had never been to Canada.

“At that point I had been to the US several times. We both completed postsecondary education in Colombia, mine was in journalism, my wife was a medical doctor, a physician, and she practiced medicine for a few years before we came here.

“We really, honestly didn’t know where we would end up in Canada. The immigration officials asked us at that point, ‘Where are you going, do you have any place to stay?’ and we were like ‘Nope, nope, we really don’t’…

“We ending up living in Toronto for a few months initially at this refugee shelter…we were very grateful for having had that opportunity. At the same time, it was what you’d expect a refugee shelter to be: shared bathrooms, shared meals, shared everything, really.

“I think they even gave us a weekly stipend, 20 bucks or something for coffee, etc.

“Everyone staying there was in a similar situation as we were. Everybody was waiting on different stages of the process…everyone was applying for refugee status, a broad range of countries.

“At that point initially to be quite honest I didn’t even know Waterloo existed, what was to become my long-term home. We were just playing it by ear a little bit, focused very exclusively on the application process, there were deadlines to meet…

“Within a year of having made the claim, at some point in 2005, the big day came, and by big day I mean the refugee hearing…it was really one of the most nervewracking days to this day.

“A lot was at stake, because one possible outcome is you have 30 days to leave Canada. At that point you’re not fully settle in, but you, you know, you really want to stay…

“We got the middle ground, which just increased the nervousness and the anxiety, which is ‘I reserve my decision,’ you hear eventually in the mail in the next few months…

“The notice came eventually and it was positive, ‘You have been granted protected person status.’ This allows you to apply for permanent resident status, which we did, and then eventually we both became Canadian citizens. Both of our kids were born in Canada and they’re Canadian citizens. We’re both dual Colombian-Canadian citizens.”

How did you get to Waterloo?

“There was an organization in Toronto…part of the rationale was to get people to move out of the GTA…they’d take you to Barrie [Ont.] or something and then they’d show you apartment buildings that have vacant units, and then they’d vouch for you [in terms of credit history].

“We almost took Barrie, because we were so desperate to get out of the refugee shelter…but we liked Kitchener [Ont.] better. We stayed there, and we’ve been there since—initially Kitchener and then Waterloo.

“When we knew we were going to be staying, we started considering our options, job-wise, education-wise. My wife had a particularly difficult career practising medicine here. Mine was arguably more universal, but still I felt that if we were going to stay here, I wanted to have a degree from a Canadian university.

“So I got a couple of temporary jobs—I worked at RIM [now BlackBerry]…factory shifts. I did that for a few months…[then] applied to the University of Waterloo political science, undergraduate level…[and then] graduate level…

“I got a research fellowship at [CIGI], also focused on security matters…security sector reform. What used to be the CIGI building in Waterloo…that’s where Project Ploughshares was leasing some office space.

“Just out of sheer proximity, I was among the first to learn there was a job opening at Project Ploughshares, and it was specifically on nuclear disarmament and outer space security…” [Mr. Jaramillo would go on to work in that area for several years.]

It’s a tough environment for NGOs in Canada, financially and in terms of influence. How do you find the state of things? 

“Yes there are financial and otherwise [problems.] It’s a tough environment politically, financially. We depend heavily on supporters across the country, and we’re very grateful for that support.

“We need to constantly strive not only to sustain that support but hopefully to expand it and diversify our base of supporters.

“It’s a challenging environment because sometimes you get the impression the average voter is not as concerned with problems they should be concerned about. Major security problems is not what’s guiding voters…and it’s not surprising or criticizable, people worry about more mundane things, and their jobs, the economy, that sort of thing.

“But precisely because of that, we feel it’s important to have organizations like Ploughshares that are in some respects the eyes and ears of concerned citizens who perhaps don’t have the time, energy or expertise to pay attention to these issues closely or directly…

“We come back and report, ‘This is what’s going on, this is what the government is doing…it’s in step or out of step with what the majority of the community of nations is doing.’

“What we don’t do, for many reasons, is engage in political activity at all. We would never tell our supporters to talk to the candidate of this party, or that party…or start mobilizing to support this candidate or that candidate…we’re not partisan.”

Are you concerned about the Canada Revenue Agency’s audits of political activity by charities?

“We’re aware of news reports that say there’s a widespread chill, and that could perhaps translate into self-censorship, to avoid the dreaded audit from CRA.

“I don’t know, and can’t comment, on how well substantiated those claims are. I think it would be problematic in general, in any government—in fact, in any country that considers itself to be a democratic society—if the revenue branch of the government was being used to scare or to subdue or to intimidate certain voices from being heard.

“But that said, we are very aware of what the rules are and we don’t think it’s in our best interest, even aside from the charitable number, to engage in partisan activity. We can’t show any preference, and we don’t show any preference, for any party…

“We haven’t [had one of those audits] and we don’t think there would be any reason to.”

As the federal election approaches, what do you think is the biggest issue Canadians should be focused on?

“We prepared recently with the Canadian Council of Churches, an election resource, online material that we think is going to be helpful for Canadians…

“To give you a few concrete examples, the issue of nuclear disarmament will remain very important for Project Ploughshares and Ploughshares constituents. As I mentioned earlier, I just got back from the UN in New York, and there is a changed climate…no matter what you think about the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, all you could hear was ‘health of the regime’ and ‘make or break’ not only from civil society but from several delegations…the impatience of several nations is becoming quite evident…the notion that the status quo will deliver nuclear disarmament, as is the obligation, is losing credibility. Something’s gotta give.

“Another issue we think is going to remain relevant is conventional exports. This notion of commercial interests guiding certain decisions, it just doesn’t fly anymore. There are certain changes that have occurred since 1976 when Ploughshares was founded. There are different expectations internationally; there’s a greater awareness of what norms might be in fact, or perceived as being discriminatory. There’s a greater sensitivity to two-tiered systems, to haves and have-nots…on arms control, you can’t choose business as usual. There’s expectations of accountability mechanisms, due process, explanations.

“In the next election, Canadians should be paying attention to whether or not Canadian foreign and defence policy is in line with those 21st century expectations of openness, accountability, transparency, etc.

“There’s got to be further clarity on the principles that are going to guide Canadian defence and foreign policy going forward after the next election, no matter who happens to be prime minister…there is room to reclaim the notion of principles, of what constitutes a principled approach to foreign policy.”

© 2015 Hill Times Publishing

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