Irlenis and Yaneth, Columbians

Irlenis and Yaneth, Columbians
Their musical South American accents and smiles hide stories they don’t often share.

Irlenis and Yaneth both work at a family centre—Irlenis with the young children at the centre in Magog and Yaneth at the one in Beloeil. Their musical South American accents and smiles hide stories they don’t often share.

Irlenis was the first of her family to ever leave her country. In Columbia, being the eldest child is an important role. She remembers her mother and 6 brothers and sisters kissing her and crying at the same time when the day came for her to leave on this incredible adventure. Three years earlier, she had met Christian, an engineer from Quebec who was working in Columbia. The lovebirds married there the following year and settled down together. But after 2 years of reflection, they decided to make their home in Quebec.

On the day they left, she held her 6-year-old son Jesus’ hand tightly, thinking about how she was bringing him to a country neither knew, where the thermometer dropped to -20°C in the winter, and where they didn’t speak the language. Despite her love for her Quebecois husband, she was shaking when she arrived in Sherbrooke back in 2000.

“I arrived in the middle of summer, but I refused to take off my winter clothes! I was so cold! I was coming from a country where the temperature hovers between 35°C and 40°C… Everyone looked at me strangely. During my first winter here, I heated the house to 30°C!” She eventually got used to the weather and tells us with a laugh how she now goes out to get the mail in her slippers in the middle of winter. Now it’s her mother who goes into shock when she tells her about it!

While her son learned French fairly quickly with his school friends, it took Irlenis much longer, as she spent many long days alone at home. She remembers those first 6 months in Quebec as a time of painful isolation. So what did she do? She talked to her mother on the phone, as any of us would!

For Yaneth, language was also a major issue. “Obviously, we can’t work until we’ve mastered the language,” and even if putting down roots in Quebec was a life project for her and her husband, the culture shock was no less intense.

Arriving here in 2008 with her little 2-year-old Sofia in tow, Yaneth knew that she was giving up her life as director of communications for a large company along with everything else she knew to follow her dream: raising her family in a country of freedom, peace and abundance. So she started over from scratch, rolled up her sleeves and closely monitored her daughter’s progress in school. Now, she even lets her little 6-year-old daughter correct her French mistakes!

When her second daughter, Mariana, was born in 2009, Yaneth was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before her and was afraid of not being up to it. She found the confidence and comfort she needed with her mother, who came over to help after the birth. Over time, Yaneth has made choices: she’s kept her Christian faith, her language and her sense of celebration.” I like children’s birthdays not to be a race for presents, but rather a moment of sharing, games and activities!”

Irlenis, for her part, had 3 other boys here: Christian Jr., 11, Bryan, 9, and William, 2-and-a-half. It’s not always easy to raise 4 boys between 2 cultures. She has also kept her vision of what she believes should be the role of adults with all children. One day, she witnessed a fight between 2 boys who weren’t hers and got involved by reprimanding them. To her great surprise, she was told to mind her own business. “But it is my business! It’s up to adults to protect children!” For her son Christian Jr., who was 5 years old at the time, it wasn’t so black and white. Stuck between 2 cultures, he often tells his mother that “it’s not like in Columbia here.” That’s a sentence immigrant parents are very familiar with!

Irlenis and Yaneth both have a network of friends that include Latin Americans and Quebeckers. “I’m often surprised by life here,” says Irlenis. “And I appreciate when someone explains simply how things work.” But sometimes, she chooses to stick with her Columbian ways. One of the things she refuses to relinquish is having respect for one’s elders, even if she knows that Quebec mothers are less strict about that than she is. “Even if the teacher is wrong, we respect him or her and do what was asked just the same. Period. Same thing for parents and grandparents.”

For both women, family is the most important thing. And the biggest family possible! We stick together, we help each other and we can count on each other. They’re still surprised to see that here children offer their opinions on everything and leave home soon after turning 18. In Columbia, parents guide and care for their children with much more authority. And what about relationships between men and women? “Here,” notes Irlenis, “the roles are different, and women don’t have to do everything for their husbands like they do in our country. That’s a very good thing, and it was easy for me to get used to that!”