Jose Figueroa broke down in tears as he took his first steps outside of a North Langley church in two years on Wednesday afternoon.
Surrounded by about 100 supporters and flanked by his wife and children, Figueroa took a symbolic step across the doorway to the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church.
“I am free!” he shouted to the cheers of onlookers.
Figueroa came to Canada in the late 1990s as a refugee from El Salvador. He and his wife had three children here, but his application to remain was denied because of his past membership with the FMLN, a former resistance group involved in El Salvador’s civil war of the 1980s.
The FMLN is now a political party in El Salvador and has won elections and governed the country at times. Figueroa was never in a combat role.
In 2013, he was given a deportation order. Figueroa decided to take sanctuary in a church rather than leave his children – all Canadian citizens – and wife who had permission to remain.
He has since been filing appeals to stay with the support of the church and local residents, including a number of politicians from civic councillors to local Members of Parliament. He was officially told early this week that the deportation order has been lifted.
“I just want to thank everybody for all the support,” Figueroa said.
Although he was in tears and leaped with joy after taking a few steps into the parking lot, Figueroa also joked with the crowd. He said he had trouble finding his shoes after spending two years wearing nothing but sandals.
The crowd sang Happy Birthday to Figueroa, and a number of supporters had arrived with gifts.
Figueroa said he hopes to become a Canadian citizen and to help others in a similar situation to his own.
Canada is capable of showing compassion to refugees from anywhere in the world, he said.
After the crowd changed “We are Jose,” he returned to the church for a celebration, but said this time he was going in “as a free man.”
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