RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Pew Research Center says more immigrants come to the United States than any other country in the world.
When they settle into homes in places like Virginia, those people may be overwhelmed and not know where to seek help. But one Chesterfield County man has made it his mission to lend new immigrants a helping hand because he understands their struggles.
In schools across Chesterfield County, more than 54% of students are minorities, and Juan Santacoloma helps them feel right at home. He’s the school district’s multicultural outreach specialist.
“The Latino community and the other multicultural communities are growing. It is something that we cannot hide. And it’s important because these people are part of our community,” said Santacoloma.
He said to think of him as a liaison between these cultures and the school system. Santacoloma runs large events to bridge the gap between schools and multicultural groups, but he also helps students individually as well.
And as an immigrant from Colombia, Santacoloma is well-prepared for the job.
“We never had plans to live in the United States,” he recalled.
Santacoloma said he had a happy life in South America. He had a loving family and a thriving career in Bogota where he worked in advertising.
But in 2000, he took his family on a vacation to the countryside, where he and his wife encountered some strange men.
“These guys, they asked us, my wife and I, for our personal information. Names, phone numbers, address, all this kind of stuff. We didn’t see any problem. We gave them the information and we continued to enjoy the fun,” Santacoloma said.
Turns out, those strange men were with the guerrilla terrorist group The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
A few days later, the guerrillas were attacked by Colombian military forces, and they blamed Santacoloma for the attack.
“One day I received a call from my office. It was like 7:30 a.m. and he said, ‘I’m Commandante Antonio, and you are a snitch. We are going to kill you,’” he recalled.
It led to the very difficult choice of leaving their homeland. Santacoloma and his family were able to escape to America with their lives.
“Stressed, lost, devastated, depressed. Any word you can say? It is too complicated when you must, or are obligated to leave your country, for something that you didn’t do.”
When he arrived in America, Santacoloma was undocumented. So he went from working an office job in Colombia to doing odd jobs like roofing, painting and janitorial work to make ends meet in the U.S.
“You need to pay the bills,” he said. “You don’t have the option when things are too big or I want the job I want.”
Santacoloma eventually filed for political asylum and moved to Chesterfield County. Years later, he’s here at the school district, helping Hispanic people, and families, adjust to their new lives. One of those people was Victor Chacon Muñoz.
Chacon Muñoz moved to the U.S. for his special needs children. He said there are far more resources and opportunities for them to succeed here instead of in his home country.
“Many Hispanics end high school and then go to work. That’s sad,” Chacon Muñoz said.
Chacon Muñoz also faced many difficulties transitioning to this new culture from Mexico. His children need adaptive learning and it was intimidating to meet with the teachers and school officials. He said he and other immigrants are often shy and afraid of seeking out help, but he said Santacoloma is an integral part of helping to break down those barriers.
“Hispanics are afraid to ask, the language barriers give us doubt,” Chacon Muñoz said. “One could get scared seeing so many people and not knowing what to ask. The key is Juan.”
“Many times, the culture, the language, puts up barriers to learning. Juan is bilingual and understands the Hispanic community, he helps us find the answers to the questions we have,” Chacon Muñoz said of Santacoloma.
Santacoloma helped steer Chacon Muñoz toward resources and programs to assist him and his family.
“Hispanics have the idea to work, work, work, and leave important things like family and schools aside,” explained Chacon Muñoz. “Juan has programs during the day and the night to cater to our schedules.”
Santacoloma understands the immigrants’ struggles and shows them there’s no reason to be afraid. In the years since he first left Colombia, he’s returned to his home country numerous times.
“The Colombia government and the FARC made a peace agreement some years ago,” he said.
But for now, the United States is his home and Santacoloma has no regrets because his new life gives him a chance to help others in need.