This survivor wants Toronto to know what happens when you give refugees a chance

With 65 million people displaced due to conflict and persecution, Oxfam and its newest volunteers have teamed up with Coldplay to bring one of today's most pressing crises to a Toronto stadium.

Ellen Lainez to join other volunteers at Monday's Coldplay concert, using music as a conduit for her message

Ellen Lainez lived and worked in El Salvador before leaving to escape widespread violence. (Supplied by Ellen Lainez)

Ellen Lainez, like millions of others around the world, once sought refuge from a region heaving with disorder and turmoil.

Lainez, who was a caretaker for her ailing mother and employee of an American airline before she fled El Salvador, had built a robust life despite the violence that permeated her country.

"It's a war. It's a society war," she said. "Every single day something is happening. Six hundred killings in a month, people being kidnapped, being targeted."

One day Lainez, too, was swept into the chaos. A survivor of violent assault, she fled soon after her attack, stuffing everything she could carry into a backpack and leaving everything else behind.

Eight years later, she's built a new life with a familiar purpose: helping other newcomers settle in.

Lainez has teamed up with Oxfam, a global charity whose Stand as One campaign urges international leaders to expand refugee programs.

The charity aims to "stand in solidarity with people who have been displaced," said Shirlee Engel, an Oxfam spokesperson.

"But what we're seeing is many world leaders are bringing fear instead of hope to communities. They're sowing divisions in society. The current system isn't really working, and governments are failing to protect vulnerable people as they move to find a better life."

Lainez has a passion for travel, and works in the tourism industry. (Supplied by Ellen Lainez)

Lainez, once vulnerable herself, has been enlisted to spread her story to strangers at Monday night's Coldplay concert. She's one of 45 volunteers plucked from across Canada, ambassadors of Oxfam who will be seeking signatures on their petition to the Trudeau government.

The charity is asking Trudeau to expand Canada's refugee resettlement program. Canada has processed over 21,000 asylum seekers so far this year, according to government figures, but Oxfam thinks the country can — and should — do better.

Oxfam has toured with Coldplay since 2002, dropping into cities around the world to bring their message to music fans: give a refugee a chance and see what can happen.

Oxfam says they've reached 32,000 concert-goers who have lent their support to their crusade, and say past campaigns have elicited pledges from powerful entities worldwide, including the World Bank.

Lainez hopes their work will have a similar impact this time around, but admits she's not only thrilled about sharing her journey — she's also a Coldplay fanatic.

"I used to have all their music back home," she said, mourning the loss of the CDs she left behind. "They use their music to create awareness, to unite people, to feel things."

When times were hard, Lainez adds, it was that music that pulled her through. "It's therapy," she said. "Music is therapy, and I'm living proof of that."

Lainez says her adjustment to Canada was a struggle: she lived for a time in a Fort Erie shelter with a degree that meant little in Canada. The taxing experience required strength, and Lainez says music was an emotional refuge, something to which she could turn to restore her sense of humanity. "It's something you have to work on every single day," she explained.

She now thrives in Toronto, working in tourism and still intent on making sure other newcomers know they're not alone.

"What I appreciate most is my freedom, my safety, and that's something I found in Canada," she said. "I'm safe now."


  • This story originally said that Oxfam has toured with Coldplay since 2016. In fact, the band first partnered with the organization in 2002.
    Aug 23, 2017 10:59 AM ET