New Canadian finds a way to give back to the country that welcomed him

By: Jon Adam Chen, Communications Advisor

After an arduous journey as an asylum seeker from Colombia via the U.S., Juan Andres Espinel says his first moments after crossing the border into Canada have shaped his new life ever since.  

Juan fled his hometown of Medellin, Colombia in 2019 after receiving threats to his life. Leaving everything he knew behind for a safe future in Canada was a daunting but vital decision.

“You start cutting off all of your attachments to material things, to your own experience, your labour, all that you have been doing for years. You start thinking about yourself in a basic way - staying alive and thinking about a better future.”

Juan sitting at a desk smiling.Claiming asylum with the Canadian Border Services Agency at St. Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec in May 2019, Juan learned that the Canadian Red Cross was operating a shelter supporting people in his position by providing food, showers, temporary lodging, and basic health care services.

Entering the shelter feeling exhausted at 3:00 a.m., Juan was greeted enthusiastically by a Red Cross volunteer wearing a bright red vest and a big smile.

“He told me ‘Welcome to Canada, and now you are free!’ I was amazed, impressed, and touched.”

Juan spent 36 hours at the shelter. He remembers the shelter as a supportive environment where people shared stories and encouraged one another for the process to come. At the same time, Juan made a point to inquire about the Red Cross. Speaking with the volunteer that had initially greeted him, Juan was told that he, too, could join the Red Cross movement one day with the commitment and heart to help others.

“Those simple, very powerful words kept moving around my head in my first and second months [in Canada],” recalls Juan.

After leaving the shelter as a refugee claimant, Juan embarked onwards to Toronto. The claim process that followed presented an array of new terms and processes to navigate. At the same time, Juan hoped to use his new knowledge and experience to help build the resilience of others in need.

Scrolling through opportunities on the Red Cross website, Juan discovered the First Contact program. From its office in Toronto, First Contact provides refugees with the information and referrals they need to navigate their new lives. This may include referrals to emergency shelter, social services, and legal and health services.

Juan saw that First Contact was recruiting for volunteers in Toronto that could communicate in Spanish and decided to apply. “Being a refugee gave me a sense of how important that role was,” he says.

As a volunteer with First Contact in Toronto, Juan has supported case management in the form of intakes, orientations to the refugee determination process and workshops in both English and Spanish. Juan says the resources that claimants request can range from the broad, like how to prepare for their hearings, to the everyday, such as information about public transportation, clothing banks and food banks.  

When Juan first began volunteering with First Contact in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the office was often buzzing with activity with many newcomers coming in within their first hours and days in Canada.

“If you looked through the glass of that office, you would see a lot of luggage [belonging to] travellers from around the world.” The COVID-19 pandemic and border closures have shifted much of this work to virtual means, but he continues to receive calls from past beneficiaries.

Juan sees his role as helping to provide confidence to those facing uncertainty, much like how he was received when crossing into Canada.

Earlier this year, Juan began an additional role as a Red Cross responder at government-authorized accommodation for returning travellers. Working at the Toronto location, Juan assists returning travellers with meal deliveries and personal items. In addition, Juan helps to provide wellness checks over the phone for those quarantining in their rooms.

For Juan, being a responder has deepened his connection to the Red Cross and affirmed his calling to support others.

“To me it has been an amazing experience. It has been an experience of discovering myself. I just feel great about the work that we are doing. Meeting with other people at the Canadian Red Cross that share the same feeling and passion, I realize that it is not only at First Contact - it is everywhere!”
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