Miguel is the directing soul and a founder of the Scalabrini Centre for Refugees and Immigrants. As people using it today, he arrived in the mid-80s in Québec City, in the St. Sacrement district, as a refugee. This was not however his first contact with Canada. He had participated in a student exchange program sponsored by Canada World Youth in 1975. In his six-month visit, he got to stay in Ottawa, Toronto and Drummondville.
He arrived with his wife, pregnant with a boy later born in Quebec, and his two older sons. The first thing he did upon his arrival was to learn French at the local COFI. As he had served as a social worker in El Salvador, he was then able to act as an interpreter from Spanish to French for the benefit of newcomers. Well integrated in the community, he became director of the Centre Multiethnique de Québec, then known as the Fraternité Multiculturelle de Québec.
Meanwhile, other members of his and his wife’s families joined them in Quebec, settling, however, in Montreal. Miguel and his family eventually followed them here. Native from the main port city of Salvador, Acajutla, he had experience with trade and customs matters. This allowed him to find work in Montréal as director of imports for an organization that wanted to develop a fair trade coffee business with Haitians. The company unfortunately did not survive long. After studying at HEC, he worked at Desjardins Group in accounting for some years.
The family made a detour by Vancouver after a restructuration that cost him his job. He worked there as director of the Hispanic Community Center. The call of the family, however, brought them all back to Montreal in the early 2000s.
Upon his return, he worked as a volunteer at the church of Our Lady of Pompeii on Sauvé Street at the corner of St-Michel. Initially, he received two days a week refugees and immigrants of Hispanic, Haitian and African origins who were asking for help from the parish to get through the immigration process. The Scalabrini Missionaries, a religious order founded by Giovanni Baptista Scalabrini, father of migrants, realized that the needs were growing quickly. They consequently bought St-Rita church to turn it into a secular and independent help center. The first months were devoted to refreshing this unused church that was in great need of care.
Miguel then became director of a small but determined team that animated, with a group of volunteers, this non-profit organization. He is currently helped by two full-time staff members, Mélissa and Edilse. At first, the center offered accommodation to men in four rooms. However, it was quickly apparent that there was a greater lack of resources for women. Today, the center has ten rooms reserved for women. Offering legal services, translation services and a small thrift store to newcomers, the center has also opened its doors to the surrounding community. It’s computer room is open to the public and language courses are offered to all adults. Recreational activities are also given there in collaboration with the Loisirs Sophie-Barat. This fall, there are English classes for children under 5 years, ballet classes and theater for school kids and Zumba for teens. The old parish hall can be rented. The Fernand-Seguin school is using these premises for after school homework assistance.
The Scalabrini Centre for Immigrant and Refugee is among the partners who are preparing to host Syrian refugees in Montreal. At the time of our meeting, Miguel had just participated in meetings on the subject, involving the concerned Minister, social organizations and religious communities.
Although there are no more Masses, except for some special occasions, the church is open to all for prayer. A small chapel, in which a group of Syrians already meets weekly, is dedicated to the cult of St. Rita, Saint of the Impossible and patron of desperate causes.
Most of Miguel’s family is now Quebec and becoming increasingly multicultural with of his son’s life partners. When I asked him if he sometimes thought of returning to Salvador, he replied “No I would feel as an immigrant in my own country. I prefer to stay at home in Québec”.