We need people here in Canada to understand what has been normal for some of us. Maybe for me to see a person cut in pieces was part of my normal life in Guatemala, but in Canada it is not normal, and I know this. – Excerpt from In the Arms of Inup.
Those frank words were spoken by Jeremias Tecu of Fredericton, a survivor of the Guatemalan civil war. His gut-wrenching story is told to author Eve Mills Allen, a mental health therapist, over a span of months after his escape to Canada.
Tecu is Mayan, and the Mayan people were caught in the middle of the military and the guerrillas during the civil war in the early 1980s. Thousands were mercilessly tortured and killed. Many fled to safety in Mexico. Tecu was only 11 years old when he fled his village with his sisters and mother. At night, they would hide inside Inup, a large tree.
At night-time they would attack, I could just feel it. Inup was the only place to hide and even though I was scared, that is where I took my family. I was only eleven, but I was in charge now. They killed my uncle Antonio, my father’s youngest brother. They tortured him and killed his children and his wife. The other son escaped to Inup with us … Inup became a mother for us. It looked like the branches were our mother’s arms, and its trunk was like our mother’s body which protected us.
They managed to evade capture until they got to safety within the country. His family’s journey was not without hardships, as they had no money, no belongings, food, water or extra clothing. They fled with what they had on their backs. Along the way, they witnessed rape, tortures and murders. Once they reached safety, life got somewhat better, and Jeremias was eventually able to get an education. He was determined to help people like himself, displaced persons who wanted to return to their way of life.
Doing this kind of work came with risks. Jeremias was continually stalked, threatened and had his office vandalized repeatedly. He was even kidnapped at one point, but he managed to escape.
For the safety of himself and his family, Tecu would have to get out of Guatemala, although he hated to leave the country of his birth. This was accomplished in 2002 through agencies that Tecu was working for on the ground in Guatemala; they put pressure on the government officials regarding the Tecus’ emergency situation. A meeting with the Canadian Ambassador was arranged. After several hours of reviewing his case, he said to Tecu: “Welcome to Canada!”
But life in Canada wasn’t easy for a non-English speaking family of five.
“As soon as we got to the Montreal airport, an officer from immigration greeted us by saying, “Bonjour Madame, Monsieur, Welcome, Bienvenue to Canada.” He asked us questions still speaking in English or French. I did not know what he was saying, so I asked my wife if she understood anything. She shook her head. When I heard “Bienvenue” I thought maybe it might mean “welcome” because in Spanish “welcome” is “Bienvenido.” It was the only thing that felt even a little bit familiar. The man took us all to one room to sign and stamp our Immigration papers, and then he pointed to a small room. Inside there were boots, jackets, pants, and hats. They were all thick and heavy. I had no idea why we would need any of these. I had never even seen anything like them before. I felt like I was in another world, not just another country.
I remember he gave us a sack for our baby daughter, and he made signs with his hands to show us to put her inside it. We had a hard time with that. My poor little Maya was crying, and I felt like crying too. But my son and other daughter were really happy wearing big boots and big jackets and trying on pants. All I could think in my head was, ‘Oh God, what is happening?
Tecu’s life in Canada would get somewhat easier as he acquired a grasp of the English language, but he soon lapsed into alcohol abuse, an old habit from his Guatemalan days. He had no idea what PTSD was. He wanted to tell his story but was mistrustful of people (an acquired survival habit) and any mental health person he met with for counselling just didn’t have the time or patience to listen to his full story. No one seemed to adequately grasp the mental health needs of refugees, or how to supply it.
His was a story that was begging to be told, and once it was told, Tecu knew the healing could begin.
“I knew for a long time I needed to find someone I could trust, so I could tell my story,” he says. “I prayed for that to happen, so I could start to heal.”
His prayer was seemingly answered in 2012 when Eve Mills Allen was at a Multicultural Association of Fredericton meeting to talk about her work in therapeutic writing. Tecu approached Allen and told her he was ready now if she would write his story. In the Arms of Inup is the result.
A remarkable story, but In the Arms of Inup is not just about Jeremias Tecu. It is about the abuses of human rights, the status and plight of refugees, especially when they find themselves dropped into a foreign country with a new language and a vastly different climate, literally and figuratively.
Eve Mills Allen is a survivor herself (see her 2002 memoir, Little White Squaw: A White Woman’s Story of Abuse, Addiction and Reconciliation.) Due to this, she is patient and understanding with Tecu and provides her services pro bono. As Tecu comes to trust Allen, he opens up to her about his story and what he has experienced in his lifetime.
Allen tells Tecu’s story with sensitivity and grace. Sometimes, the two will not meet for months until Tecu is ready to tell more. Their meeting sites are safe, open, public spaces, in order to reduce the feeling of confinement that an office setting may induce in Tecu.
The Atlantic provinces have welcomed many refugees and while there have been success stories, there are many like Tecu who require mental help support for their particular issues, circumstances many Canadians cannot even imagine. In the Arms of Inup will go far to help us understand the plight of refugees in this country and what can be done to assist them. The Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network receives 10 percent of all sales of In the Arms of Inup.
James Fisher is the founder and editor of The Miramichi Reader where this review was published on June 30, 2021.