Comic book heroes possess superpowers to make the world a better place, but a real-life heroine resides and works here on the Avenue. Ana Alfaro operates Educational Tours and Travel with her daughter Lucy on the second floor of 91 Street and 118 Avenue.
Travelling to Canada as a refugee from El Salvador in the early 1980s meant leaving everything familiar behind, plus her career as a medical doctor. Alfaro said, “I never used my medical training here. I decided to do something else to help my family and community.”
Help she did. Alfaro established El Salvadoran Social Services in 1982 to work with refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and El Salvador.
“We focused on refugees who escaped across borders without documents from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador when turmoil was high in South America.”
At that time, only a few groups existed to help, such as Catholic Social Services and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, but “no one was helping people without documents. Refugees had no money for lawyers.” Alfaro learned how to obtain documents to settle refugees in Canada and set up the St. Barnabas Refugee Society (BRS), working with Margaret Hirthir as president.
Alfaro established temporary locations in the United States as a stopover for people planning to settle in Canada. “Every two weeks, I went across the border helping people apply to come legally to Canada.” Alfaro spoke to churches soliciting help with clothes, shelter, and sponsors for refugees. BRS was the umbrella for multiple groups to obtain much-needed funding. Alfaro aptly defines herself as a helper of people who don’t have any future or hope.
“We did it for about 20 years. Helped hundreds of people.” Alfaro, along with BRS, church groups, the Latino American community, and many more helped refugees study English, obtain documents, and register for Alberta Health Care. “Then we focused on training and jobs.”
The third generation of families she helped have become well-established professionals in Edmonton. “I’m proud of my contributions to my community. People came with no knowledge of the society, culture, and language. We gave them the opportunity to start a new life.”
Alfaro knew helping refugees settle was only triage. She next set up Latino American and Salvadoran groups for sports, group dance, theatre, community craft workshops, and women’s and youth groups. She knew it was important to “stay connected with their culture and their roots so they didn’t get lost in a new society.”
She started her travel agency after a bad car accident slowed her down in 2006. She initially focused on educational Latin American tours, but now takes groups anywhere awareness is needed.
This fall, she is taking a large group to Rome for the Oct. 14 celebration of the pope recognizing Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero as a saint. The archbishop struggled to protect the impoverished, calling on Americans to stop the war. He was killed in El Salvador March 24, 1980, a week after Alfaro left for Canada.
“We are also taking a tour to Peru in September to jungle areas where indigenous people are fighting to protect their land from oil corporations,” said Alfaro. With little money for food, they have no resources to inform the world.
Somehow Alfaro finds time to form more organizations and she continues to campaign and petition against outside interference. Recently, she started Pachamama (meaning mother earth) to help Latino Americans.
“We fundraise for projects in Mexico, Peru, and El Salvador. We are holding a Pachamama festival on Aug. 25, inviting First Nations, Latino American, and environmental groups to participate.”
The goal is to set up a Latino American centre to hold cultural and artistic activities and to bring artists from South America. Pachamama will focus on supporting indigenous people (like in Peru, mentioned above) and protecting Earth from deforestation and harmful mining.
Alfaro’s superpowers are clearly caring and possibly not needing sleep, as her slower pace may be akin to a cheetah’s top speed.
Featured Image: Ana Alfaro operates Educational Tours and Travel with her daughter Lucy, but worked to help refugees for many years. | Rusti L Lehay