Now they share another bond. They’ve supported each other through Christchurch’s killer quakes.
It’s hard to move to a new country when you don’t speak the language. Learning bus routes, finding a job and making friends are all difficult.
Throw a natural disaster into the mix and you would be forgiven for hunkering down and surrounding yourself with family and only the familiar.
Colombian immigrant Lucila Orjuela de Gil however, is not one to let Canterbury’s devastating earthquakes shake her spirit.
“I love New Zealand,” she says in her halting English. “It’s quiet, the people are friendly.”
It’s been nearly 20 months since the February 22 quake and while much has changed for Lucila, one thing that’s stayed constant is her English Language Partners’ volunteer tutor, Joy Sharp.
The women have been friends since Joy began tutoring Lucila shortly after she arrived in Christchurch with her husband, William, from the Colombian capital, Bogata, to join their daughters, Janet, Tatiana and Solangie.
They have much in common, says Joy, they like painting, have similar aged grown children and laugh at the same things. And since the quake they share something else, they both lost their homes.
“What was the quake like for you?” asks Joy.
“It was horrible. I think only of my daughters who were in the city centre,” says Lucila. Her words a mix of English and Spanish and hard to understand, but the tears that well up in her eyes are universally understood. “It’s alright,” comforts Joy, stroking Lucila’s arm.
Joy tried unsuccessfully to contact Lucila after the quake but it was over two months before they managed to find each other. Joy’s Huntsbury Hill home was destroyed when it lost walls and part of the roof as the foundations subsided.
“We stayed with my son in Woodend,” says Joy, “and then moved to Rangiora.”
Lucila and William were living in council flats on Brougham St and were given just one hour to pack up their possessions and leave after Council inspections deemed the buildings unsafe. Lucila’s boss gave them space in his sleep out before the council found a new home for a couple of months.”
When at last they found each other, they picked up their lessons where they’d left off and Lucila’s learning continued just as before.
Joy says that despite the disruption, there was never any doubt that she would continue her tutoring. “Of course the priority was making sure our families were safe but I wanted to reconnect and try and help as much as I could.” She says the help in the early days was really just verbal – being together and talking.
Joy says the quake changed the focus of lessons. “We’ve talked quite a bit about our feelings around the quake – how terrifying it was, the sadness. It’s really just about being supportive.”
It wasn’t that difficult to adapt her lessons to include abstract concepts such as being frightened, stress and other feelings. The help worked both ways. Joy says having to come to Christchurch forced her to travel the 30 kilometres back into the city.
“It would have been easy just to stay in Rangiora, but I always wanted to come back and teach Lucila because we’ve always had such fun.”
Both Joy and Lucila admit that it was hard to get Lucila’s learning back on track. Stress is known to trigger forgetfulness and Joy says they had to go back and redo several months’ worth of lessons. “I forgot yes,” laughs Lucila. “But Joy is good. I understand her.”
Lucila was lucky to find a home in Spreydon close to where she works looking after two special needs children. She’s also not that far from where she and William were living so the area is familiar and with the exception of the road works, life is much the same as it was.
Joy and Lucila still meet every week and don’t really talk much about the quake anymore, especially as there are always new things to focus on such as Joy’s new grandchild and Lucila’s paintings.
Lucila recently sent a number of canvases home to Colombia. Where once she painted flowers, she’s now become a landscape artist and knows that her family and friends back home are envious of her new life, even after the earthquakes. “It is so beautiful here,” says Lucila. “This is where I will stay.”
Writer: Kim Triegaardt