Refugee who escaped FARC to Canada serves as submariner

Navy News / June 6, 2019

By SLt M.X. Déry, MARPAC PA

Twenty-two years ago, long before he joined the Royal Canadian Navy, and six years before immigrating to Canada, Master Seaman Angel Soto and his family were running for their lives in Colombia.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known in Colombia as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), had come to their small town to extort government workers and MS Soto’s father was the municipal treasurer. When his father refused to help the FARC, he had little time to trade what he could to escape with his family.

“My parents had a nice house and we had to trade it for a motorcycle,” said MS Soto. “My father and I left at 5 a.m. on that motorcycle.”

His mother, younger brother and four-month-old sister hid in a merchandise truck as it left town and out of the reach of the guerillas.

“We started from scratch with nothing but the clothes on our backs and that motorcycle.”

In time, his family managed to rebuild their lives in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, and after five years had a small grocery business.

But in 2001, FARC guerrillas showed up at the grocery store looking for MS Soto’s father and while they didn’t find him, his mother was shot during the altercation. She survived, but still deals with the injuries from that day.

“We kept moving every three months. We never stayed in one place long after that.”

From city to city, job to job, the Soto family bounced around Colombia, as did approximately 25 per cent of the population, internal refugees displaced by the conflict.

Luckily, MS Soto’s father heard there was a Mennonite church in Bogotá that was helping refugees out of the country. The church gave them food and started explaining the process of coming to Canada, from applying for refugee status to how to deal with snow once they immigrated.

During the layover in Atlanta, his family was held up by security since they couldn’t speak English, and they missed their connecting flight to Canada.

“It was tough, since we didn’t have any money for food. I think that was the last time we went hungry.”

Finally, arriving in Vancouver in 2003, the Mennonite sponsors gave their family a place to stay and food for a year so they could get established and learn English.

“It was quite the shock. My father spoke a little English back from when he was in elementary school. My siblings being younger picked it up pretty quick.”

A few years later, they were Canadian citizens, but it wasn’t easy forgetting the trauma of running for years.

“It took a while for sure, to feel safe enough to go outside and enjoy life,” said MS Soto. “Whenever there was a knock at the door, my father would open it just a crack, take a peek and ask ‘Who is that?’”

After high school, MS Soto worked a few jobs and started thinking about becoming an electrician.

“I had done a couple of electrician courses for construction and thought that is the way I want to go. When I saw the commercial: Join the Navy, travel the world, we need electricians, it made sense. It is a good way to give back a little bit to this country that basically saved our lives.”

Nine years later, MS Soto is a submariner, a marine technician and a husband. He still visits his parents regularly. Despite the difficulty of being away from family, he speaks highly of the comradery of the Royal Canadian Navy.  

“I don’t know if it is because I didn’t grow up being able to make friends because we were running most of the time, but making friends in the Navy, from all over the world, it makes it better. It reflects what Canada is, seeing people from all over the world serving on one ship.”

It has been quite the journey to get where he is today, and his navy friends have encouraged MS Soto to tell his story. He has begun writing a book about going from that 14-year-old escaping the FARC in Colombia, to the miracle of his father hearing about that Mennonite church sending people to Canada, to sailing under the waves in a submarine.

“I’ve gone back to my parents and spoken to them to make sure I get the details right.” He is always impressed that they never gave up.