In debt and with nowhere to go

Community News & Features Aug 28, 2014 at 2:24 pm
From left: Dan Gabriel, Anastacia and Anacito Espena at Pearson International Airport.

From left: Dan Gabriel, Anastacia and Anacito Espena at Pearson International Airport. Photos: Maria Assaf

After 4 years recovering from injury, former caregiver Anastacia Espena reunites with family

By Maria Assaf

Anastacia Espena and her family have two weeks to start a new life. The husband and son of the former live-in caregiver arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Aug. 14, with $20 each in their pockets.
“The only thing that they bring with them is their clothes. Nothing else,” says Mrs. Espena.

For four years, Mrs. Espena has been living in a retirement home, recovering from spinal cord injury that left her in a wheelchair. She is able to host her family there for only two more weeks, but then they have to find an apartment.

At the moment, their only income is a personal allowance Mrs. Espena receives from Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

But for her, this is only another step in a series of challenges she has faced since arriving in Canada in 2008, when she entered the country as a live-in caregiver. Her dream was simply to bring her family to Canada and give them a better life.

ANA-soloIn February 2010 at 4:30 p.m., only three weeks after returning from vacationing in the Philippines, the former bank manager went to take out the garbage before heading to cook dinner for the family she worked for. She suddenly felt dizzy, fell and hit her head on a chunk of snow from days ago and could no longer get up.

“I couldn’t feel my legs. The first thing that I did is to pray. It’s winter time, there’s no snow but it’s winter time. So I said God please help me that someone hear my scream,” says Mrs. Espena.

After 45 minutes, two neighbors found her and called 911. “They thought that I got hypothermia, because I could not move,” she says.

An ambulance took her to a branch of William Osler Health System in Brampton. After undergoing a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), they transferred her to Toronto Western Hospital where she found out she had a spinal cord injury.

“When I woke up, I looked like a Christmas tree with lots of machines and I couldn’t move anything, only my head. I was so scared. But I said no, this cannot be happening, because I want my family to come here. So I set my mind. No, my family is coming here and no, I will walk again,” she says.

EMOTIONAL REUNION. Former caregiver Anastacia Espena hugs son Dan Gabriel while husband Anacito comforts him at Pearson airport after years of family separation while she worked overseas.  (3 Photos: Maria Assaf)

EMOTIONAL REUNION. Former caregiver Anastacia Espena hugs son Dan Gabriel while husband Anacito comforts him at Pearson airport after years of family separation while she worked overseas. (3 Photos: Maria Assaf)

In less than a month, Mrs. Espena was transferred to Toronto Rehab for physiotherapy, where she stayed for four months. Initially, she could not even feed herself or comb her hair.

“Every minute, every second I keep on visualizing that I’m moving, I’m walking. Little by little, I could move,” she says. “They were kind of surprised that I could move, because according to them I had a high level of injury. According to them it’s very rare that I can walk again,” she says. “Now I can walk with a walker and if someone is with me, I can walk with a cane.”

Because of her accident, Mrs. Espena lost her job and with it, a place to stay and her immigration status also vanished.

The live-in caregiver agreement states that if workers lose their job for any reason before the 24-month mandatory working period, they automatically lose their status until they find a new employer to sponsor them. They are also required to reside at their employer’s home for the length of the placement.
“The live-in caregiver program puts really harsh, as it is right now, puts really strict conditions on caregivers,” says Maria Capulong, a personal injury lawyer specializing in motor-vehicle accidents, who helped Mrs. Espena with her Permanent Residence application.

“If a live-in caregiver loses her employer for whatever reason, she is essentially vulnerable to being homeless [and] unemployed for a length of time, because she would have to re-apply to find an employer and wait for those papers to be approved before she could start working again,” she says. This process can take up to 10 months.

Atty. Maria Capulong

Atty. Maria Capulong

On June 20, Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced a reform of the temporary worker’s visa. The changes are meant to give priority to the Canadian labour force and include measures such as increasing the fee for hiring temporary workers, which will make it harder for Canadians to hire foreign workers like Mrs. Espena.
However, Mrs. Espena was lucky her employers purchased WSIB insurance. “Her situation was unusual,” says Ms. Capulong. At the time that she was involved in the accident, there weren’t many caregivers that I know of who had WSIB available to them.”

“I think the issue when it comes to live-in caregivers, it isn’t just about employment insurance, but it is also the time that’s being wasted. If they wanted to become permanent residents, they have to fulfill that 24-month obligation within [four years], so if they’re not able to find an employer, they are losing time,” says Ms. Capulong.

At the time of her accident, Mrs. Espena had not completed the 24 months mandatory work period, which then made it hard to apply for PR. “On top of this, there was some concern about whether or not the PR application would be approved because of her condition,” says Ms. Capulong.

After filing a humanitarian and compassionate plight as well as a PR application, Mrs. Espena received a phone-call on May 27 saying her family was coming to Canada. The three of them had been granted PR status. “I cried,” she says.

“I prayed for this for so long,” says Anacito Espena, her husband. He plans to work and study to become a Personal Support Worker (PSW), so one day he can be able to help people in his wife’s situation.

Her son, Dan Gabriel Espena, who is 16, is also looking forward for a future in Canada. “I want to go to university for physiotherapy,” he says.

But soon after the news of her family’s arrival, Mrs. Espena was hit with bad news from home. On July 25, her mother died. Mrs. Espena had to pay for the funeral and the medical costs of her mother’s treatment which amount to about CA $10,000, money she loaned. She also had to buy plane tickets for her family to come to Canada.

The WSIB personal allowance is not enough to feed her family. Now the family has only two weeks to get adjusted to life in Canada in the midst of their dire economic situation.

In her condition, Mrs. Espena has also been trying to find an apartment since June, but has not found something affordable that is also accessible for her special needs.

“I don’t have anything, because I’m living in a retirement home. It’s a furnished one and I’m not paying for it. My insurance is paying for it. Now I don’t know where to go. So I said, maybe God will provide,” she says.