COMAS, PERU – The house that Juan Jose Ariza started to build eight years ago is still not finished. There is a pile of rocks where the front steps should be, and the bedrooms aren’t all done yet.

Two years ago, Ariza left the house along with his wife and young son, to work on a farm in Ontario, vaccinating chickens.

He went because his wife was ill and had to quit her job, his father-in-law was sick with cancer and Ariza’s earnings as a hotel employee were not enough to support them. Ariza knew it would be difficult to work in a foreign land, but he felt he had to go.

The other survivors

Javier Alba Medina is living in Comas, Peru, with his family. He said he is worried about how he will support his family once workers’ compensation payments run out.

Edgar Sulla Puma is living in a group home in Hamilton, Ont. and continues to recover from his injuries. His family says he is making slow but steady progress. He awoke from a coma four months after the accident and is now confined to a wheelchair. He has been undergoing physical and speech therapy, but as of today, he is unable to speak.

“I had to make that sacrifice no matter what,” Ariza said recently, sitting on a couch in his home in Comas, Peru. “It was difficult to leave.”

But after only one day on the job in southwestern Ontario, Ariza’s hopes of helping his family fell apart. He was one of 13 migrant farm workers travelling in a van that collided with a truck near Hampstead, Ont., on Feb. 6, 2012. Eleven men died that night. Ariza and the other survivors were left with severe injuries.

What has happened in the two years since underscores some of the difficulties facing those who travel to Canada as migrant workers to do the kind of work most Canadians avoid.

Just over two weeks ago, Citizenship and Immigration Canada granted Ariza a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP) that allows him to return to Canada for two years.

The permit, however, is only for him – not his family. So returning to Canada is not as simple as it seems. For Ariza, it means leaving his wife and son behind again.

What he says he is really fighting for is permanent residency – permission from Canadian officials to allow him and his family to settle in Canada.

Remembering the accident

Ariza, 37, remembers the accident in startling detail. He was sitting in the back of a van on that fateful February night when it collided with a truck after the van had run a stop sign.

“All the others were sleeping. I was looking at the snow, the houses,” he said through an interpreter, sprinkling the narrative with a few English phrases. “I saw the houses and turned right and saw the truck coming to us. I saw the truck driver right there, in front of me. His eyes were fixed on us. I looked back at him. I then turned and tried to stand up and alert my co-workers, ‘Watch out, watch out!’ Then I remember the sound of screeching tires. All those memories, the sound of tires and the accident remain deeply engraved on my brain.”

Ariza suffered a fractured pelvis, broken ribs and hand and a badly damaged knee. He spent weeks in hospital before moving to a care home for the elderly in London, Ont.

Fellow survivor Javier Alba Medina, 40, joined him there, while the other survivor, 28-year-old Edgar Sulla Puma, stayed in hospital in a coma for four months.

Truck, van collide

Police inspect the van that was carrying a group of migrant workers when it crashed near Hampstead, Ont. on Feb. 6, 2012. Ten people on board died. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

The man who drove the truck, 38-year-old Christopher Fulton, died after swerving to avoid the van. Fulton’s quick thinking likely saved Ariza’s life and the lives of the two other men.

Rehabilitation was slow and painful. In December 2012, Medina decided to return to his family in Peru. For Ariza, still in Canada at the time, it was a difficult and lonely Christmas. His wife, Edith, had gone into hospital for surgery on her spine while their son, Flavio, then six, stayed with relatives.

Ariza wanted to return to them, but as he had applied to stay in Canada, he worried that if he left the country, his application might be dismissed.

Yet by July of 2013, Ariza had grown increasingly frustrated. He had waited months for an answer from immigration officials. In that time, his father-in-law had died from cancer and Edith was making a slow recovery. Still living in the care home and with no resolution to his case, he boarded a flight to Lima.

Ontario’s workers compensation scheme continued to pay most of the salary he would have earned, and also covered most of his medical expenses. Benefits are typically paid until an injured worker is deemed fit and ready to return to work.

A slow recovery

Now, Ariza is back in Comas, Peru, where the rumble and roar of trucks on the road outside his door keeps him on edge day and night. He says the sound reminds him of the accident, a memory that has given him nightmares.

Ariza spends at least four days a week going to and from medical appointments. Jose Luis Navarro, one of the doctors treating him in Lima, pegs Ariza’s recovery at about 20 percent.

While Ariza is rehabilitating in Peru, immigration consultant Angelica Gonzalez is carrying on his fight for permanent residency back in Canada. (Christopher Fulton’s widow, Teresa, fully supports Ariza’s fight to gain permanent residency.)

“What we are asking is for his right to stay in Canada and to be retrained and be productive. He came here just to be able to provide for his family. That is something he is not going to have back home. It was taken from him because of the accident,” Gonzalez said.

It is difficult to know how many migrant workers are injured on the job in Canada, and harder still to verify what happens to them when they cannot work. In 2012, Ontario human rights lawyer Fay Faraday issued a report documenting what she said are the ways Canadian laws create insecurity for migrant workers.

“When they are injured on the job, they frequently face job loss and repatriation,” Faraday wrote. In an interview, Faraday added that workers are sometimes sent home immediately so their injuries are not reported to workers’ compensation agencies.

A bittersweet victory

In that sense, Ariza’s case is an exception.  

Citizenship and Immigration spokesman Remi Lariviere confirmed that Ariza was issued the Temporary Resident Permit (TRP), which is valid for two years.

Peruvian widows

Three widows of men who died in the 2012 accident gather at a cemetery near Comas, Peru. (Roxana Olivera)

“TRPs are only issued in exceptional circumstances, including compelling humanitarian and compassionate reasons,” Lariviere said. 

But it is a bittersweet victory for Ariza.

He admitted a TRP is not what he was hoping for, but Gonzalez has advised him to come back to Canada in order to give him a better chance of winning his case for permanent residency for his family.

“I know that I will have to go through difficult times. I will miss my family very much,” he said as his wife sat nearby, tears filling her eyes. “But I have to do it. I have no choice. There are no employment opportunities available to us here in my country. I have always been a fighter.”

Ariza has the support not only of his own relatives, but at least three of the widows of men who died in the crash in 2012.

For them, Canada represents an end to a dream – a shattering of the family and the future they hoped for. And yet all three are united in the hope that Ariza and his family will build a life there.

“We would share that joy with him because he is fighting for what our husbands and sons were trying to achieve,” said Delia Arce Blanca, who lost her husband, Mario Lizardo Abril Paredes. 

“[Ariza] is trying to build a better future for his family. And if he manages to reach his goal, we will celebrate with him, as if it was a victory for all of us.”