In 2003, Ofir and her young family arrived in Canada as refugees from Colombia. Here she shares her remarkable story of escaping a life of fear in order to re-build a future for her family. Ofir is a teacher, co-founder of Colombo Canadian Alliance for Development and is a loving matriarch of a thriving growing family. We are honored to have her share
her remarkable story with us.
Ofir, please tell us a little bit about your daily life and your family.
I am a very proud Mother of two adult children whose goals and aspirations have changed and evolved over the years. Andres, my eldest son was recently married and is living with his wife Maria in Calgary. Jose, “my baby”, is also in a happy long-term relationship with Alyson and they share an apartment with their adorable puppy Charles! Both Andres and Jose are currently attending the University of Calgary.
I come from a large family of eight. My husband John and I are empty nesters but appreciate the constant companionship of our dog Themis. On January 23rd I will be celebrating my 52nd birthday and am amazed that I have been in Calgary for 16 years already!
During the last 12 years my career as an elementary school bilingual teacher has kept me very busy and on my toes! In my spare time, I pursue my passion for volunteerism and co-founded a charity in 2012 which supports children’s education in Colombia. Our charity is a grassroots organization and we are proud to be 100% volunteer-run. In 2014 we obtained our CRTC charitable registration status.
We would love to hear your story about ‘coming to Canada’. We have heard various parts of the story but give it to us, our HK community needs to hear it. Take us to the beginning.
In 1992, the father of my first son, Andres, was cruelly murdered in Cali Colombia, the city where I was born. Prior to that time, I had been a full-time mother and housewife taking care of my husband and son, Andres. This tragedy put me in survival mode and completely changed the future course of my life forever.
After the death of my husband, I came to the realization that I was the sole means of support for my son. Almost immediately I started job hunting, but the social and economic conditions had slowly deteriorated, and decent jobs were scarce. Reacting in survival mode, I decided to buy a moped and start my own business selling gold jewelry. This provided us with some income but that soon came to an end when two men tried to kill me and steal my son on our way to his daycare.
This experience prompted me to enroll in University and pursue an education. I was grateful at that time that I was able to move in with my mother so that she could help take care of Andres while I attended classes. Four years later I married John Lopez, my current husband with whom I have been sharing my life up to now. After we were married, Andres and I joined John in Manizales city, where John was studying and working as a university professor and I had my second son, Jose.
During that time John was also acting as the General Secretary of the provincial teachers' union and I was studying at the Caldas University. While John and I were working as teachers, John’s life was threatened, and he was sent to Spain for protection. This happened after his friend and colleague who were also union members were murdered by a paramilitary group. In 2002, John returned from Europe but the danger risk level for all the members of the union had actually increased. This was due in part to the invasion of small villages that union members used to work in by the paramilitary groups. We decided after multiple threats to our family, more specifically John and Jose, and having to move from home to home, that we needed to flee.
After this series of complex events, the National Teachers Union facilitated the displacement of my family to a different city while they organized our departure from Colombia to Canada. In December 2003, we were sent to Saint Johns, New Brunswick where we lived for six months. In July 2004, we made the decision to drive all the way from Saint John to Calgary where we had heard there were job opportunities for teachers.
"I believe all women are resilient and experts at adapting to changing circumstances."
Thank you so much for sharing. We hope that more of these stories will be told. No one chooses to flee their country, their family and community. Full stop. Can you explain what has been most challenging about moving to Canada?
I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to live in Canada for many reasons. First and foremost, my children have been given opportunities that they would never have received in Colombia. In Canada, there are still struggles but their hopes and dreams are not impeded by social and economic conditions that are beyond their control. Opportunities are granted through hard work and effort which we have much gratitude for. Andres and Jose have developed strong characters but are modest, hardworking and very generous. For this, I am very grateful.
"I miss my Mom's early morning kiss and hearing her constant laughter."
After many years of hard work and study, John and I were granted the opportunity to work as teachers in Calgary. Our first two years were spent teaching in the private school system, and the last ten years in the public school system. Apart from the cold and the language barrier, the biggest struggles in moving to Canada were leaving behind my family, including my mom. Colombian families are typically very close, and my family is no exception. Still after 16 years of living in Canada, I struggle with the fact that most of my relatives are living in Colombia. This is especially highlighted during the holiday season when our family used to spend a lot of time together. I miss my Mom's early morning kiss and hearing her constant laughter!
Tell us about Colombia. Visiting there, you experience the beauty of the landscapes, the people and culture, but tell us more. Would you ever return to Colombia?
Colombia is famous for many things such as being the world’s largest producer of emeralds. Having a diverse climate, Colombia grows and exports many different species of flowers. Our coffee crops are the world’s best known maintaining the highest standards of excellence.
After living in Canada for three years, I started visiting Colombia every second year. Unfortunately, the economic and social situation was deteriorating mainly due to corruption in the government. It is sad to see the majority of people, especially women and minorities, living without dignity, just surviving every day.
Colombia has many beautiful treasures and I love the country where I was born, dearly. That said, all of my family members in Colombia encourage us to stay in Canada due to some of the issues that still are present to this day. The situation seems to be less hopeful, without strong leadership. Also, I hope to be a Grandmother in the future which would strengthen my ties to Canada. These are very key considerations in my decision-making process.
Who and what do you teach? What is the best thing about teaching and what do you find most challenging?
I am a grade two elementary teacher. When I first started teaching in Calgary with the CBE, I was assigned two homerooms to teach in Spanish, my native language. However, in the last five years, I have been teaching grade two, in both English and Spanish. I teach Art, Math, Ped, Spanish, Health and Social Studies in Spanish.
Teaching has been my passion even before I graduated from university which is why I enjoy it so much. I love seeing my students grow and flourish and I learn something new every day from my students.
Being a Spanish native speaker has brought both advantages and challenges to me. I feel very fortunate that Spanish is being offered in the majority of schools in Calgary. Because of the strong emphasis on Spanish in the school systems, I was permanently hired by the Calgary Board of Education in 2009. It has been12 years of hard work teaching and learning to adapt to the very diverse backgrounds of the student populations within the classrooms. For example, it is not unusual to find students with varying physical, intellectual, emotional levels within the same classroom. Large gaps in socio-economic status are also typically seen.
You’re a timeless beauty, Ofir. Seriously you don’t age. Does it feel like that for you too—do you feel as young as ever?
Being a teacher keeps me young at heart as I am motivated to Iearn something new every day. This makes me feel young because I am always looking at life with beginner’s eyes and with a sense of curiosity like my students. My sons’ achievements fill me with energy and enthusiasm and a zest for life each day. Knowing that John and I have done a good job in raising them gives me a great sense of satisfaction.
My charity, Colombo Canadian Alliance for Development
gives me a tremendous sense of purpose knowing that I can make a difference in the lives of Colombian children in need. It truly fills my heart with joy. I think it is my attitude and enjoyment of life that contributes mostly to looking younger than my years. Age is only a number. We are only as old as we feel!
What is your best advice for young women? What is your greatest life lesson?
My advice for younger people would be to never stop learning and being curious about life. Embrace new opportunities as new challenges, face them fearlessly and you may realize that your life is full of unlimited potential. Lead by example so that you can maintain a humble disposition.
My greatest life lesson as a woman, was overcoming difficulties and challenges without losing my dignity, and in fact being willing to fight for it. Having lost my first husband and fleeing from Colombia were excruciatingly difficult, but I survived whilst maintaining a sense of dignity and purpose. I would not hesitate to do it again, if needed. I believe all women are resilient and experts at adapting to changing circumstances.
"Whatever happens, I promise I will read until the day my eyes close forever."
It’s the weekend and work is put aside until Monday. What do you do in your spare time?
On weekends I enjoy walking my dog, visiting my boys, my sister and friends. I also love reading about education to keep myself up to date. Sometimes, I go to my favorite place, the mountains, to enjoy nature.
Some of the HK community lives in Alberta, just like you. What is your sense of the political climate and what advice would you give Alberta’s premier?
I find that the power struggle in Alberta is becoming sadly too polarized. Fortunately, Canadian people are accustomed to solving their differences peacefully. I believe the provincial government should view education as the vehicle to build a strong community to sustain future generations.
Imagine yourself at 60! What will you be doing? What’s your mission?
When I am 60, I hope to be retired and enjoying my grandchildren. I look forward to being a mentor and teacher to them, similar to how I spend my days currently as a school teacher. I also see myself one day living in a rural area in Latin America where I am completely surrounded by nature and can awaken to the sounds of birds and animals. Volunteering in a remote village where children have no access to education would be a dream come true for me. Whatever happens, I promise I will read until the day my eyes close forever.
To find out more about Colombo Canadian Alliance for Development, visit ccadfoundation.ca