Diana Gallego’s journey from refugee to the associate director of a refugee centre

By Helia Mokhber

Posted on February 23, 2022

Photo courtesy of Diana Gallego

Human rights lawyer and social activist, Diana Gallego has dedicated her life to advocacy and social justice. A dedication she continues to embrace as the associate director of the FCJ Refugee Centre, where she helps immigrants and refugees every day. Her story is truly inspiring.

Life in Colombia

When Gallego was in high school, her family and 20 others became involved in a land dispute with the Colombian government. Feeling the need to protect the rights of the families, she started on a path that would eventually bring her to a new life in Canada. She was the first in her family to go to university, and became a human rights lawyer.

In law school, she met her husband, Luis Alberto Mata—who she describes as “a person rooted in social justice.” They began working with members of their community, becoming peace counsellors of their region. They criticized the paramilitary groups that were active at the time, forcing her and her husband to flee Colombia for a year.

“At that time, a lot of human rights defenders were killed or displaced. And many people didn’t want to go to exile, so there was a program that human rights defenders were able to go for a year to Spain and then come back. Then, we decided to come back.”

Leaving Colombia

Gallego began working for Reiniciar, a human rights organization that assists victims of human rights violations. Her involvement with the organization made her family a target. Despite facing threats, they continued fighting for justice and became internally displaced in Colombia. In 2002, their son was threatened, which forced Gallego and her husband to think about permanently leaving their home country.

On December 16, 2002, Gallego and her family came to Canada and claimed refugee protection.

Arrival in Canada

Despite finding safety and comfort in Canada, Gallego faced many challenges as a newcomer. She spoke little English and found it very hard to navigate her new country. She was unfamiliar with the landscape, language, community, and people.

“It was difficult, even to go and buy things. My husband was able to speak a little English, but to understand was difficult for him. But I couldn’t even understand, I couldn’t speak. I was just saying ‘Hello.’”

Apart from feeling alienated due to the language and cultural barriers, Gallego and her husband also felt guilty for leaving their country. They felt the urge to return and continue fighting for justice, making their first few years in Canada extremely challenging. To combat this urge, Gallego began distancing herself from the person she was in Colombia.

“I didn’t want to talk about Colombia. I didn’t want to be around anyone from Colombia, […] because that was my way to survive,” Gallego said.

Adjusting to a new life

Fortunately, Gallego began to gradually adjust to her new life in Canada; an adjustment she credits to two factors: The Mennonite New Life Centre and art therapy.

At the time of her arrival, the Mennonite New Life Centre offered their services to Gallego and her family. The centre serves as a community-based agency that offers resources and helps newcomers adjust to their new lives. They assisted in registering Gallego and her husband in English as second language (ESL) classes and finding them an apartment. At the centre, Gallego met and related to other newcomers from Central America. Gallego also understood and expressed her feelings through art therapy—a therapeutic process where creativity and art can facilitate emotions and healing. Art therapy helped Gallego unpack her feelings of guilt and homesickness and adjust to her new life.

Gallego said, “After many years, I realize, okay it doesn’t affect me anymore. I was able to have friends from Colombia. I realized I didn’t want to go back.”

FCJ Refugee Centre

With this adjustment, her strive for advocacy and helping others renewed. Gallego completed the community worker program at George Brown College. She began volunteering and then working at the FCJ Refugee Centre. Located in Toronto, the centre offers resources and advice to refugees and immigrants, and helps combat the systemic issues they often face.

Photo courtesy of Diana Gallego

Gallego defines her greatest success as being able to be with her family and have the opportunity to follow her passion working for social justice and helping immigrants.

Using her expertise in law, she helps refugee claimants fill out immigration forms, complete humanitarian and compassionate applications, appeal cases rejected by the refugee protection division, and connect immigrants with a lawyer when necessary. As the associate director of the centre, she continues to help clients as she oversees these operations.

“I’m really happy. I think it’s one of the most beautiful jobs that I have in my life. […] I was a refugee here. And now I’m somebody that opens the door at FCJ, and in the morning, I have a family of refugees waiting for us with the baggage from the airport. It’s really special for me to have this opportunity.”

Advice for newcomers

When asked to share any advice for newcomers hoping to adjust to a new life in Canada, Gallego stressed the importance of volunteering and networking. Volunteering is a wonderful way to become familiar with your community and find people who can become colleagues, references, friends, and even family.

“Our ESL teachers, our mentors, became our family.”

Specifically for newcomers hoping to claim refugee protection, Gallego emphasized the importance of sharing one’s story.

“Work hard to prove your case and fight for your case, it is your story. Fight for your story.”

You can find out more about the FCJ Refugee Centre and all the resources they offer at: https://www.fcjrefugeecentre.org/.

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