by Tobias Stoner
Pedro Lopez’s face lights up when he sees Walter Heibert. He immediately jumps out of his chair for an enthusiastic hug, and Mr. Heibert seems no less excited to see him. “I cannot pass without saying hello,” he explains. For his part, Mr. Lopez declares, “I love him,” growing emotional as he explains their relationship.
Five years ago, Mr. Lopez left his home in Venezuela. He asked that we not use his last name for fear of retribution in his home country. He came to this town of 4500 in the flat, open expanse of Manitoba’s plains. Since his arrival, he has built deep relationships in this town, and has helped sponsor 16 family members who have also moved to Canada.
In Venezuela, says Mr. Lopez, “life is politics.” Until 2007, he worked for an international oil company until the government took over all oil production – an “appropriation of property, not a nationalization,” he says, because “the government did not pay.” After a dispute over back pay – the government told him to ask his company for wages leading up to the transition – Mr. Lopez had to find other work.
Eventually, he started a small business making and selling gelato, but things were difficult. He was forced to buy his ingredients “under the table, for ten times the price,” he says, and government officials collecting taxes and fees for the health department took much of his profits. Mr. Lopez disputes the government’s claim to provide free services to its people, saying people paid through fees, taxes, and bribes – “they always take the amount the law says, and a little more.”
In 2012, he moved to Canada, where he found work at a printing company, Friesen’s, in Altona. He obtained permanent resident status through the provincial nominating process for immigrants to fill economic needs, and began to build a new life. “Work is the force which achieves your goals,” he says. Initially, he worked a night shift, going to bed at 6:00 AM. Twice a week, though, he was up again for English classes at 8:30, with Walter Hiebert, the man he’s now become close with. The classes were organized by Friesen’s, which also helped bring several of his relatives to Canada as a sponsoring employer through the provincial nominating process. They know that “I’m not going to bring anyone crazy,” he says.
Mr. Lopez has also built relationships with local Mennonite churches and a group they support, “Build a Village”, which sponsors refugees through Canada’s private resettlement program. “Everybody that has contact with us here in town helped us,” he says. He also welcomes new Syrian families in town. He has gotten to know them, he says, through the churches and Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and development organization which also helps resettle refugees in Canada. “They connect us,” he says, especially through an “English café” on Mondays, where everyone can gather to practice their new language, and some native Altonans show up to practice their Spanish.
Despite his warm welcome, Mr. Lopez’s transition to life in Canada has been difficult. “To be an immigrant, you need a big heart to take it,” he says. His first winter, he explains, he was very afraid of the cold weather, though now he likes it, because no matter the temperature outside, it is always warm in his house or car. More wrenchingly, his mother passed away in Venezuela last December, and he was unable to attend her funeral, because his Venezuelan passport had expired and he does not yet have a Canadian one. “I did cry many times,” he says, dabbing his eyes at some of the memories.
Today, with much of his extended family here in Canada, Mr. Lopez has restarted his gelato business and looks toward the future. Ultimately, he says, “yo busco tranquilidad” – “I seek peace.”