In summer 2013, Natalia Jiménez’s boyfriend took her immigration papers, telling her that if he was going to be sent back to Colombia, so was she. She followed him outside to try to get them back.
In the streets of London, Ont., he turned around to face Jiménez and hit her. She remembers trying to run and him pushing her down. She fell hard, scraping her knees, and then called for help. Neighbours came to her rescue.
Jiménez’s legs and arms were scratched, and she ached where he had hit her. But the neighbours cautioned her against involving the police. He’ll be deported, she says they told her: don’t do it.
Jiménez and her then-boyfriend, Mayk Oliveros-Callejas, had only recently arrived in Canada as refugees. She’d come first in July 2013, and he’d followed that September. She left her home after facing threats as a result of her job as a social worker. Jiménez told no one she’d been beaten.
“I kept quiet and endured.”
She isn’t quiet now. Jiménez is one of two honourees in this year’s Shine the Light campaign organized by the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC). Since its launch in 2010, the centre has honoured one woman who has been killed and one woman who has survived every year. This year, Sonya Cywink, an Ojibway woman whose murder remains unsolved 25 years later, is the other honouree.
Jiménez is now a permanent resident of Canada, but when Oliveros-Callejas hit her in the street, she was a refugee claimant. While recovering in the hospital from attempted murder, she was a refugee whose claim had been denied.
Her experience speaks to that of a unique subset of the population that faces extra barriers to accessing help when finding support is already a struggle for most people experiencing domestic violence.
There is stigma and shame. There is fear and uncertainty. There is a language barrier. There are neighbours who tell you to say nothing because he could be deported — because you could be deported. Nearly six years after she was almost killed by her boyfriend, Jiménez is going public with her story despite her discomfort because it’s one she fears is being repeated among other domestic violence victims.
It is, says Maria Socorro Mangila-Nguyen, executive director of the Vancouver and Lower Mainland Multicultural Family Support Services Society. The society provides multilingual services to many women like Jiménez.
“We are grateful for the systems that can work,” Mangila-Nguyen says.
While the rates of violence against women among immigrant populations are similar to other communities, they are more vulnerable and face more barriers to accessing services and supports, according to research compiled by Western University. These barriers include language and a lack of knowledge of Canadian policies and laws — as Jiménez experienced — as well as problems accessing alternative housing.
Informal help is often seen as a gateway to more formal help, and “refugee and asylum seekers often have even fewer social networks than other immigrants,” according to a 2011 report.
Jiménez had been in a relationship with Oliveros-Callejas for about a year when she arrived in London, although she’d known him for much longer. She says he was possessive from the beginning, trying to control how she dressed, whom she hung out with and whom she talked to. He often picked her up at work because he “always wanted to be there,” Jiménez says. It was easy, at the start, to call it love.
But the first time he hit her, she says, it was over an outfit she chose for an outing with a few work friends.
“It bothered him a lot, how I was dressed,” she says. He called her a prostitute, and she went to her mother’s home with bruises, ashamed. In the morning, she broke up with him.
But then a cycle started: she would pull back, and he would guilt her, threatening to kill himself. She says the first time, it was his mother who called.
“She told me that he was at the hospital, that he drank rat poison. … That made me feel very bad and guilty,” she says.
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When safety brought Jiménez to London in 2013, it also meant living — at least for a few months — on a separate continent from Oliveros-Callejas, although he’d call her wanting to know what she was doing and whom she was with.
“He was jealous,” she says. “Very jealous.”
By the time he arrived, Jiménez was already starting to change. She vacillates on the right word to describe how she welcomed him to Canada: with disappointment? Displeasure? Fatigue? Indifference?
“He began to notice,” she says. “He said that I had a lover.”
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In Canada, when he no longer seemed to be able to manipulate Jiménez enough psychologically, she says he resorted to more force. If she could go back, Jiménez says she’d start by going to LAWC. “Here, they advise you what to do first and what not to do.”
Instead, she navigated it on her own, juggling blame after Oliveros-Callejas told family he was only defending himself against her and repeating familial edicts that “all your problems are fixed at home.”
Jiménez confided in a friend, a fellow Colombian who saw her visibly ill from being assaulted. Her friend encouraged her to go to the police and called an ambulance for her after an attack in October 2013.
“I don’t think it affects your status,” Jiménez remembers her friend saying.
After being released from the hospital, she spent a few days at a shelter.
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Jiménez regrets going to the police first. The questioning made her feel as if she was to blame, she says, and she didn’t leave feeling equipped to protect herself after Oliveros-Callejas got out of jail.
That’s a big part of the problem, says Megan Walker, executive director of LAWC, who first met Jiménez in her hospital bed.
“Many of the things that are meant to help women can inadvertently backfire and make things worse for them.”
More training is needed for police agencies and immigration boards, adds Anuradha Dugal, director of community initiatives at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. She notes that it’s not just about the violent situation police are confronted with on a call.
“It’s about immigration, refugee dynamics, the cultural implications, the previous trauma somebody might have faced (just) trying to get to this country,” she explains.
Dugal says people need to recognize that previous trauma might actually keep women from reaching out to the police because their trust in the authorities has been so eroded in their home countries. Even in Canada, she explains, “our legal system has let down women consistently for many, many years,” which means some women won’t want to engage with it.
Oliveros-Callejas wasn’t in jail long. He was released with an order not to contact Jiménez. But he did, alternately angry and cajoling. Oliveros-Callejas was sent back to prison before being released on Boxing Day. She remembers him belatedly celebrating Christmas with some of her own family.
When Jiménez buzzed a friend into her building on Jan. 2, 2014, unlocking her door in advance so she could get back to cleaning, she wasn’t expecting Oliveros-Callejas. He came in, disguised as a woman, with his face entirely covered so only his eyes were visible. He closed the door, locking every new lock Jiménez had added for extra security.
“He didn’t say a single word to me,” she says. “I remember that I fought. He threw me on the floor. He hit me against the walls until I lost consciousness.”
Throughout the attack — which a judge later called “particularly horrific” before rejecting a plea deal and sentencing Oliveros-Callejas to a full 10 years for attempted murder — Jiménez was choked repeatedly and stabbed in the chest. She woke up in the hospital. She remembers lying in a small room with security doors and sobbing.
“I couldn’t believe I was alive.”
Jiménez couldn’t move and could barely talk. “I coughed up blood,” she says. “It was very bad.”
Even though her refugee claim — the one that had kept her from seeking help in the first place — was denied right around the time Jimenez was in the hospital, she says that for a few days, her recovery and disbelief at still being alive superseded her concerns about being sent back to Colombia. Right when she started to worry, Jiménez met Walker and other women from LAWC, including a translator.
“They swore to me: ‘You are not leaving Canada. We are going to help you with your status.’”
Jiménez is still grateful today. LAWC not only put her in touch with a lawyer but paid for those costs. She received permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Earlier this year, the Canadian government made changes to this specific route to permanent residency in a bid to expedite the applications of women like Jiménez who experience family violence.
It’s also the option the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants suggests for people who are refugee claimants experiencing domestic violence. The website clarifies that permanent residents will not lose their status or be deported for leaving abusive relationships with their sponsor but that refugee claimants “might have more difficulty.”
Jiménez’s gratitude for the centre’s support, as well as her desire for other survivors of domestic violence to know they should reach out to organizations like LAWC first to make a safety plan, is what motivates her to speak up even though she’s nervous about her English. (Global News’ interview with Jiménez was conducted primarily in Spanish).
“The first thing is to look for help in centres like this. … Here, they advise you what to do first and what not to do,” Jiménez says. “If I had come here first, I would have taken security measures.”
What Jiménez survived is regrettably common, Walker says, and the centre sees it often: the internal struggle women experience and their fear of deportation — especially in cases in which their abuser is also their sponsor.
For this very reason, the federal government recently axed a two-year time requirement for marriages among those sponsored by a spouse for immigration purposes.
It takes courage for someone to walk into the centre, she says, but they do.
“And then we start to peel back the layers of the onion and we see this woman emerge filled with light and love and joy, and that’s a pretty amazing process to be witness to.”
While experiencing domestic abuse should not officially impact a person’s status in Canada, the reality is that helping people in this position understand that and navigate their way to help is “a labyrinth,” Dugal says.
Organizations that reach out to people in languages other than English and French are pivotal in their communities, Dugal says.
“One of the very, very strongest supports we can offer women are front-line services that are feminist and that are delivered in a language that she’s comfortable with.”
The problem, however, is that “those services that are excellent are chronically underfunded and aren’t always able to respond to needs.”
Indeed, a report out last month from Women’s Shelters Canada — an organization created six years ago out of a need to put official numbers to anecdotal stories of women being turned away from overcrowded shelters — revealed that places offering refuge and support for women at risk are increasingly underfunded.
It’s an issue Walker brings up, too.
“There is no appropriate housing for women,” she says.
“Women who are on a priority list because of their circumstances of being abused are still waiting two years for housing. Our shelters are full.”
LAWC is unique in that it’s one of a handful of agencies nationwide whose policy is that “all women have a right to immediate access to service and that’s thanks to a generous community, Walker says.
“We’ve got to stop talking about equality and start talking about freedom,” she says.
“We need to provide women with the tools they need to be free in their lives, and they just don’t exist at this time.”
Today, Jiménez still wakes up in fear. Her mother came to Canada after being threatened in Colombia because Jiménez would not drop the charges against Oliveros-Callejas. Her mother’s arrival was an immense relief, Jiménez says, because at the time, she was depressed, suicidal and needed her mother.
But now, Jiménez‘s brother has been deported, and her mother is facing deportation. Knowing just how crucial a community of support is, LAWC is doing its best to help Jiménez with an application for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Still, she lives in fear — what happens when Oliveros-Callejas gets out of prison? What happens when he is deported back to Colombia, where her brother is and where her mother might be?
“I am afraid to think about what will happen in the future,” she says. And yet, she pushes through because she knows domestic violence is an issue many in her Latina community experience.
“We come here and remain silent out of fear that they will deport us, fear of what the community will say, because we have no support or because we do not speak English,” Jiménez says.
“All of that motivates me to show them that we don’t have to be afraid, that we have a lot of support.”
Are you or a woman you know being abused? Here are a few ways to get help:
The London Abused Women’s Centre, featured in this piece, can be reached at 519-432-2204.
You can also call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline for free at 1-866-863-0511 or TTY 1-833-286-9865.
The Ontario government website has a number of support links, including connections to safe shelters, medical treatment and counselling.
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