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Elena Diaz was on a bus in San Salvador when two men – both gang members – approached her. One waved a gun.
“We know where you live,” the man said. “We know what color your house is. We know where your son goes to school.”
Elena was terrified. She worked for the government office of public safety, responsible for legal and technical recommendations for the correctional system. So although she protested, Elena had reason to believe the men knew exactly what they claimed.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Elena said. “I can’t help you.”
“Just shoot her,” one of the men said to the other.
That day was a turning point. The increasingly perilous balance between life and death in her home country of El Salvador had tipped, and for the first time, Elena feared for her life and that of her eight-year-old son. She got off the bus and took a taxi home.
The youngest of nine children, Elena has fond memories of her earliest years; growing up with a father who sheltered her from the chaos of living through a civil war and a mother her brothers used to call “the boss.”
“My childhood was calm and serene when my dad was taking care of me,” Elena said. “He protected me. It was paradise.”
Everything changed when Elena was only six years old. Her father died, and her mother became the sole breadwinner. In addition to the financial strain, the loss left a hole in Elena’s heart.
“When my father died, part of my life went with him,” she said. “I loved my father a lot, and I still miss him like it was yesterday.”
Her mother had always worked hard running a small restaurant, and after she became a widow, Elena began joining her every day.
Elena says that even at the age of six, she loved helping out.
“I would never sit down; I would be working,” she said. “I enjoyed it. I would clean the tables and set the tables and put out the salt and pepper. I did that every day.”
Over time, Elena and her family felt the effects of the civil war in many different ways – from having to walk to school because the rebels had shut down the roads and bridges, to seeing people get shot – and even getting caught in the crossfire.
“One day my mother sent me out to do the shopping and I heard a noise that I thought was fireworks. A store owner who was a friend of my mom’s told me to get down … I felt something in my leg, and realized I had been shot. I went back to the restaurant and showed my mom, and she got the bullet out.”
Elena was 10 years old.
And she vividly remembers one visit to her grandmother’s house, who lived by a coffee plantation near a military check point.
“A car came through and a man got out, followed by a bus,” she said. “Two men got off the bus and they were taken to the plantation. I heard horrible screaming.”
Both men were later found dead.
“Now I think about it and it was horrible,” she said. “But at that time, it was normal … to see bodies everywhere.”
Elena’s mother got sick and then died when Elena was only 22, leaving her to care for three nieces between the ages of 9 and 13. Determined to succeed, Elena studied law and began to work in the office of public safety; reviewing cases sent to her by prisons.
“One day, we were asked to transport some documents to another location and we were not given protection or any kind of security,” Elena said. “We were concerned because we knew that if any of the gang members happened to see us, we would be killed. But my boss told me that if I didn’t want to do the work, there were a hundred other people who wanted my job.” That’s the day Elena encountered the gang members.
“They told me I had been warned and that was the only chance they would be giving me,” she said.
“I knew at that point this could not continue, and I couldn’t live with the fear of something happening to my son,” she said. “So I called my boss and I told him that I was not going to be able to go to work the next day. I went home and I closed my windows and stayed inside. I was very scared. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
On the day she resigned, she noticed two men following her.
“The experience of being afraid of your son disappearing is the worst experience a person can have,” Elena said. “I didn’t go to the police because I was afraid that either the gang members were paying the police, or the police themselves were gang members.”
Elena had never planned to leave El Salvador; she had family and a house and a good job and felt she was living well. None of that mattered when she realized her life was at stake.
She knew she needed to get out of El Salvador as soon as possible, so Elena contacted the U.S. Embassy and was promised an appointment in three months. Too afraid to stay that long, Elena packed up two suitcases and she and her son got on a bus to Mexico.
Her intent was to seek asylum in Canada where friends lived, and she was granted a one-year U.S. visa on the Texas border in order to complete the process. But once the pair were safely in the United States, Canadian officials told her they were no longer in danger and therefore not eligible for asylum.
Staying with friends in upstate New York, Elena learned the waiting list for legal immigration assistance might be as long as three or four years – not an option on a one-year visa. She was caught in the middle. Another friend in Washington state suggested that Elena come to Washington and buy working papers and just start working.
Arriving here in early 2012, Elena hit the ground running.
She found emergency shelter at Mamas Hands in North Bend and searched for English classes while looking for a place to live. Elena was referred to Hopelink by a social worker at the eastside social services agency Encompass, and in November 2013, Elena and her son moved into Hopelink’s Duval Place. Immediately, she felt safe.
“I was very relieved to see that my son had his own space again and that he could go outside and play,” Elena said, “and that I didn’t need to worry about him being kidnapped by someone who was following us.”
She credits Hopelink with providing the stability she needed to start a new life.
“If you have a safe place to live, it’s like having a center of operations and you can get a lot of things started and you can make things better.”
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project took on her case and Elena eventually was granted asylum. She became a permanent resident in March.
A woman of strong faith, Elena firmly believes people must work hard in order to make it. And she is living proof of her commitment. Today, Elena is employed as a support specialist at Encompass, helping 42 families in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. She is happy to be working and paying her bills and says she lives in gratitude every day, surrounded by good friends and a renewed sense of community.
Far from the turmoil of her homeland, Elena is excited about her future. She and her now 12-year-old son live in their own apartment, and she is hoping to return to college and to someday own her own home.
“The most important thing is having a place to live – a place for family to be together, and Hopelink gave that to me,” Elena said. “The program has been a blessing.”