This story was originally published in the Kairos Catholic Journal but includes some updates.
Providing support to refugees is a significant part of our work here at CatholicCare, and so as this week is Refugee Week, we would like to tell a story of one of our own staff who was been a refugee herself.
Tomasa Ruiz works with CatholicCare as a manager in our Refugee Settlement Program and spends her time helping refugee families in Dandenong and recently also in Eltham. She has been a refugee twice in her lifetime, and has spent much of her life advocating for human rights for refugees.
Tomasa was born in Los Pozos, El Salvador. At the time, it was a small, lively village at the foot of a volcano. Tomasa’s mother and father were poor people ‘working the land’ on the coffee, sugar cane and cotton plantations.
Although she has some happy memories of her childhood, it was far from peaceful. In the years leading up to the Salvadoran Civil war in 1980, there was much unrest.
“People were treated really badly,” she said. “Salaries weren’t good. So people started organising and asking for better working conditions. That was not just happening in my village, it was happening across the country.”
The paramilitary organisation ORDEN (officially decommissioned in 1979 due to repeated human rights’ violations, but unofficially reactivated as a ‘repressive apparatus’ during the civil war) began rounding up community leaders and suspected agitators.
“That’s how everything started,” Tomasa recalled. “You had soldiers coming to the village looking for different people. My dad was one of those people.” For years, Tomasa’s father and older sister had to hide in the mountains at night.
On Tomasa’s 14th birthday, 17 September 1981, there was a massacre in her village.
“We ran and hid, but the people that couldn’t run or hide were killed. There were over 60 people killed on that day. We could see from the hills where they were killing people and where they were burning houses. And from that day, we never went back to our village.”
Tomasa spent the next three years, along with nearly 100 other villagers, hiding in the mountains. They kept on the move; the soldiers were never far behind. They travelled on foot, often for days at a time, with no rest. In winter they slept under sheets of plastic.
At this time, her parents had eight children. As the second eldest, Tomasa had to look after her youngest brother, who was only three months old when the massacre in her village took place.
“Every time my brother heard a plane coming he would cry and say, ‘The plane who gives me headaches is coming.’ ”
After three years, Tomasa and her immediate family reached the refugee camp of San Antonio in Honduras. Miraculously, they had survived. But the whereabouts of her grandmothers, uncles and aunties were unknown.
Tomasa spent 18 months in the refugee camp, but felt restless. “From the refugee camps we could hear everything that was happening in El Salvador. We could hear the planes throwing bombs, we could hear the news on the radio; there was a need to go back.” She was not yet 18 years old.
Armed with nothing but a new pair of shoes, jeans and a backpack, she made her way to San Salvador, the nation’s capital. Here, she joined CRIPDES, a social justice movement started two years earlier. She became one of the national leaders.
“We became the biggest organisation working for the rights of the internally displaced, for their human rights to be respected. Within a couple of years, in 1987, we started organising the repatriation of the refugees.”
Tomasa spent 10 years with CRIPDES as a social activist and humanitarian. The war officially ended in 1992, and at that time Tomasa was pregnant with her second son.
Death threats, suspensions and disappearances became the order of the day for the young family, but it was an ‘unexplained’ road accident, killing several of her work colleagues, that was the final straw. “There was a point where I thought, ‘We have to leave… this is never going to end. We have to do something because I can’t afford to leave my children orphans.’ ”
Because of her internationally recognised humanitarian work, Tomasa had offers from several countries offering them asylum, but family ties directed them elsewhere.
“We decided to come to Australia, and believe me, it was not an easy decision. Australia seemed so far away from El Salvador… But, you have to have hope.”
Tomasa’s greatest fear about coming to Australia was the language barrier. “The first thing I learned to say was ‘two hours concession please’, to buy my ticket. If the bus driver asked me anything else I wouldn’t know what to say.”
Tomasa managed not only to learn English, but to undertake further studies at TAFE, gain employment and raise her four children: Orlando, Roberto Jr, Vanessa and Belinda.
Reflecting on how she managed to stay strong through the many obstacles in her life, her answer was unhesitating:
“I tell people that I am alive because of my faith.”
“When I was in the mountains, I used to complain, asking, ‘Why is this happening? Why do I have to suffer? Why do I have to see all the things I have seen?’ I used to complain a lot because it didn’t make sense to me.”
“When the bombs were coming close—they were so close—I used to put my hands over my head and get down and pray a prayer my mother taught me. And I knew that nothing was going to happen to me. I never thought I was going to die. Even in the most difficult time there was always something or someone protecting me.”
Addendum: Tomasa is just one of many staff working in our Refugee Settlement Programs who have come from a refugee background. With a lived experience of trauma, displacement and settlement issues, they are well-equipped to support newly arrived refugees to settle well in their new country.