It has taken perseverance to get to where he is, but today Eric Alvarez is a fully-fledged constable, based in Rotorua.
Eric was able to realise his dream after events led him to seek refuge in New Zealand. “El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Organised crime has taken control,” he says. “For a time, my family was fine. But then we received a phone call demanding money. They told me that if I didn’t pay, they would kill me, my wife and son. They knew where we lived, so I started paying. “I was so scared, I couldn’t sleep. We used to get up thinking ‘What’s going to happen today?’”
Fortunately, Eric’s uncle was based in Australia and helped apply for visas to leave El Salvador.
“We left our village overnight in secret. If I’d told my friends, the news would spread.”
The family hid in San Salvador and didn’t feel safe until the plane took off. They arrived in Auckland in 2011, and Eric’s uncle helped them apply for protection. He also recommended they travel to Rotorua. “He knew leaders there and said the Mäori community would welcome and look after us. And they did,” says Eric.
Three months later, the family were accepted as refugees. But they’d arrived with no English. “It was awful. It felt disrespectful not being able to answer people’s questions.”
Initially, they stayed in a motel where the owner saw they were struggling and introduced them to English Language Partners.
“I attended lessons for a year. The staff were friendly, and the other students were in the same boat. We became a small family.”
With help from English Language Partners, Eric found volunteer work at the Third Place Café and after three months, was offered a job.“I worked there for five years, starting as kitchenhand and progressing to cook. I am grateful because they trusted and trained me. Knowing about New Zealand food has been amazing.”
A hard worker, Eric was named the café’s Employee of the Year, and was a finalist for the Rotorua Chamber of Commerce’s Employee of the Year. While at the café, Eric enrolled in the English for Employees course to improve his workplace language.
“I still remember things I learnt, like the word ‘shout’. I didn’t know what it meant. Now I hear it often, like when we are patrolling, and my partner says: ‘Eric, let’s go get a coffee. Is it your shout or mine?’ “Another cool thing about English for Employees is you meet other working professionals.
Eric also had an ESOL home tutor, Mark French. “Mark helped me get my driver’s licence, and one evening he turned up with a little white car and said, ‘This is for you’. He’s been my guardian angel. It’s more than just language. It’s a friendship.”
Eric’s improvements in his English allowed him to dream big again. “Mark found out about the requirements to join the police, as we didn’t have a computer.”
To take his studies further, Eric joined Te Wänanga, passing tests in literacy, maths, computing and abstract reasoning. He then submitted his application to the police. “I was training hard for my physical and studying and working. I would come home, have a 20-minute rest, then off for an hour run. I was afraid of failure, and kept pushing myself.” He had to learn to overcome failure, however, initially falling short on a couple of his exams.
“It’s not always an easy road. You need to be determined. You fall, get up and try again,” he says.
Nowadays, Eric loves the role he’s carved. “What I like most is being able to go to a situation where people need help, and make people feel better and safe.”
Inspector Brendon Keenan says Eric displays a real sense of integrity, strength, courage and compassion.
“His empathy towards victims, I imagine, is birthed out of his own challenges and trials in El Salvador.”
“He brings a greater degree of trust and confidence to our community.”
Eric says his workmates are very supportive. “They know I’m still learning the language and the culture. They give me feedback in order to improve, so it’s really cool.”
Eric and his wife and son gained citizenship in September 2018. “That was a special moment, to be recognised as New Zealanders. Now we feel we belong.”
Eric acknowledges the importance of learning English to succeed and wants his story to inspire others.
“The better our spoken English, the more opportunities to find or get a better job. When I started, I struggled. Then, when I was really into it, it was fun. I started to love it. You just need time. The better our spoken English becomes, the more you feel at home."
“I want to encourage people to dream big. In New Zealand, any goal can be achieved, as long as we commit ourselves.”
Eric’s next goal is to buy a house. “I love Rotorua, it’s been home for us. I can’t see us ever moving away.”