Oscar Armando Toledo Soriano says it’s a tough fight against the perception that some have of his country.
Headlines in North America have recently hit El Salvador with the title of “murder capital.”
The United States government has warned its citizens that, though they aren’t specifically targeted, there’s a risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, given a murder rate among the highest in the world: 103.1 murders per 100,000 citizens for 2015. The Canadian government tells citizens to be highly cautious because of the high crime rate.
“That is true, we have a big problem with the juvenile gangs, which are [the] result [of] the returning and deportation of Salvadorans in the United States…but that is not the whole picture of my country,” said the Salvadoran consul general from his downtown office on Jan. 13.
“So everybody thinks that once you arrive to the airport, one gang is waiting for you, but that is not true,” he said. “If you go there, nobody is going to mistreat you, people in El Salvador [are] very nice…but nobody says that.”
One of his goals during his Toronto posting has been to find new projects to help his country and support existing ones. The Stratford Festival and a few partners have been working on such a project for years to help the city of Suchitoto in El Salvador. Young people are learning employable skills in the arts and receiving theatre training that can be used to incite social change.
“They are busy all the time, and in that sense they help them not to go into the gangs. It has been a very successful project,” said Mr. Toledo, who has a passion for development work.
He studied international relations in El Salvador and completed a master’s in international relations and development studies at Ohio State University.
He returned to his country in 1992, the year the country’s civil war ended. He worked with the government and United Nations organizations to help implement development projects.
Mr. Toledo then joined the Central American Integration System, a regional body, where he continued overseeing development projects.
He said one of the projects he worked on was a Mesoamerica educational program, which involved working with Mexico to create one history textbook to be used by students in all of Central America.
After having studied diplomacy in university, Mr. Toledo wanted to give the diplomatic life a try and got the opportunity to come to Toronto as consul general nearly six years ago. He took the foreign service exam a couple of years ago, so would now be considered a career diplomat. He is in Toronto with his wife and two children.
He is expecting that his Toronto job might be up this year. He says his work as a consul general has been very fulfilling.
“I really enjoy talking to the people and helping them with their necessities,” he said. “Sometimes you can make the difference with very small things, even with a letter or a signature of yours, which is not a big job.”
Mr. Toledo said he was amazed by the level of organization the Salvadoran community has in Toronto.
“They remember the festivities from our country and they maintain the tradition and culture from El Salvador.”
One priority for Mr. Toledo was to “open the communication with the Salvadoran community.”
The consulate works with the community, such as the Salvadoran Canadian Association – Toronto, on holding events.
Mr. Toledo is the only diplomat at the small consulate, which hosts just a handful of staff members.
Another task has been to help the community, including Salvadorans who are living in Canada illegally.
“Our goal is to help them, to improve their life, if we can help to legalize them, we can help in any way,” he said. “But at the same time we are very respectful of the government of Canada and their legislation. And we can understand some situations sometimes even though we don’t like it.”
Dealing with such situations, like deportation cases, can be difficult, he said.
“It’s a terrible experience for the people, because it’s people who have been here for more than 10 years, and they have children here…and they cut all ties and relationships in El Salvador, so can you believe the people who [have] to return and begin again?”
Toronto-based journalist and former Embassy staff writer Sneh Duggal writes on foreign consulates in Canada.
Origins: Born in a small city, Atiquizaya, but grew up in the capital, San Salvador.
Favourite restaurant: Cuscatlan, a Salvadoran restaurant in Toronto.
Music: “Tropical music,” including Salvadoran, Caribbean and Cuban music.
Dream job (other than diplomacy): Back to his roots of implementing development projects.
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