It’s just after 3 p.m. on a sunny Monday afternoon in New Westminster. Paisley carpets line the hallways of an old reddish brown apartment near the Columbia SkyTrain station. From inside, you can hear the sound of after-school cartoons mixed with children’s laughter.
“Stop that! Play nice,” Kimberly Azurdia scolds. “Be nice to your sister!”
But it’s a fond scolding, marked by relief that kids roughhousing is the only thing she has to worry about this afternoon.
The laughter is in sharp contrast to June, when Azurdia and her husband, Jose, made a middle-of-the-night decision to take their three small children and flee their home in Guatemala.
“As I was picking up my husband from his work, a car was chasing us and they shot at us. That was at 9 p.m. and that night we decided to leave the country,” said Azurdia. It was the latest in a saga of political persecution that had marred their lives in Guatemala.
“We had no idea where to go. We were just thinking a safe place and so here we are.”
The Azurdias left Guatemala by car that same night and drove to San Salvadore. From there, they flew first to Dallas, then Las Vegas, Phoenix and Seattle, then decided to try for refugee status at the Canadian Border. When they were denied, they did what hundreds of other desperate people did in 2016.
“We crossed the border on foot.”
They continue to adjust as they wait to hear back from Canadian officials on their asylum application.
A big part of it has been having seven-year-old Aliza enrolled at a New Westminster school.
The Azurdias are lucky to have ended up there. In late February, it became the only school district in B.C. to have adopted a sanctuary school policy. It lays out in writing that all undocumented kids can go to school without fear of being reported to the authorities.
School trustee Mike Gifford said it’s what schools should be doing anyway.
“According to the B.C. School Act, all districts are supposed to be ensuring that kids living in the district are able to enrol,” Gifford said.
“Schools are safe zones. We’re not trying to address immigration status, we’re trying to figure out what’s the best for the education for the child.”
— Mark Gifford (@contactgifford) March 1, 2017
Other school boards in the Lower Mainland have yet to take action.
Maple Ridge school board chair Mike Murray said the district has no formal plan in place for undocumented students, but cited their policy manual, which includes an inclusive schools initiative as a sign of their commitment to providing a safe and caring environment.
In Surrey, officials have yet to consider a formal policy but are committed to enrolling every undocumented child in Surrey.
“We try to put the first focus on getting the child into school and getting them an education while the paperwork is getting worked out,” said spokesperson Doug Strachan.
The Langley School District has put their policy committee to work on drafting a sanctuary schools initiative, said secretary-treasurer David Green. While it’s unlikely anything will be down on paper before the next school year, Green said the district also has and will continue to work with every undocumented child living in Langley.
“We will try to do everything we can to provide that child an education.”
Alejandra Lopez Bravo with Sanctuary Health, a group that provides services for refugees, was part of a working group that introduced the New Westminster sanctuary school policy, which she’d like to see duplicated all across the region.
“Schools ask for immigration status for the children and the parents and we thought that it was a barrier,” Bravo said. “It created a lot of fear among families with precarious status.”
A sense of home
To Jose and Kimberly, having Aliza in school has provided a sense of security that has been hard to come by since they came to Canada.
“The school is amazing. They are helping us a lot,” said Jose.
It’s not just limited to Aliza’s enrolment. The school has taken on teaching Jose and Kimberly English too, although much to her delight, Aliza’s English is quickly outstripping that of her parents.
“She will come home from school and correct us. Like, ‘Dad, that’s not a glove, that’s a mitten,’” Jose said with a laugh, a perfect imitation of his sullen seven-year-old.
“My daughter is the first child to be accepted in the sanctuary school,” he continued. “Now, there are many more but she was the first with precarious status.”
None of the three school districts could provide exact enrolment numbers for undocumented students. The Canada Border Services Agency said the number of refugee claimants in B.C. has almost doubled between 2015 and 2016.
Last year, 830 people applied for refugee status in the province, up from 456 in 2015. More than 200 people applied at the border alone last year, and 500 people applied at CBSA offices within B.C.
It’s those 830 people that Kimberly wants to help. Once her own immigration status is worked out, she hopes to work with parents who have gone through the same journey as she and her family have.
“I took a course to be a [school] councillor,” she said. “I want to continue being a teacher and helping sanctuary schools.”
But more than that, Jose and Kimberly just want to stay here.
“I want to be a good Canadian citizen,” said Jose.