EMPTY APARTMENT, NEW HOPE
Haitian family finds sanctuary here
There’s nowhere to sit in Joanne Clotaire’s apartment in Montreal North.
There are no chairs, there’s no fridge or stove, no kitchen table, and the sofa is missing all of its cushions.
“I have to get rid of it,” she says. “Then there will be nothing.”
Her entire life lays scattered across the one double bed, a gift from the local church, where she and her two boys sleep.
A blue file folder, tucked in amid assorted T-shirts and toys and a bottle of baby lotion, holds all her important papers in it, like the letter from the local school board.
The board is trying to find a school for her two boys, Looandjee, 8, and Lucas, 7, the letter explains. But if she doesn’t hear back from them by Sept. 15, Clotaire should call again.
Still, after all she’s been through to get here, these empty rooms are a sanctuary, and a beginning.
“At least here I feel good, I feel really good, since I got to the border,” says Clotaire, a nurse by training, who also studied computer science. “The police carried my suitcase for me. They said you’re under arrest. I said I know. But here I’m not afraid.”
It’s been a long, harrowing journey.
Back in 2009, Clotaire and her husband, Louinel, left Haiti with their 10-month old son, after Clotaire’s mother disappeared. Targeted in their Delmas neighbourhood for her religious beliefs, Clotaire still doesn’t know exactly what happened to her mother. But when Clotaire herself was threatened, she begged her husband to get them out. He bought airline tickets to Ecuador and they packed up and left.
Lucas was born in Ecuador, but when Brazil opened its doors to Haitians after the earthquake flattened Port-au-Prince in 2010, the Clotaires moved south, where work on the World Cup or the Olympic Games beckoned. Their life in Brazil was OK, Clotaire recounted, until about 2016, when the economy crashed, and foreigners became targets of abuse or theft.
It was time to leave again, Clotaire said, this time for the U.S., where a brief window in immigration policy was allowing Haitians in. But first they spent four months walking, day and night, across South and Central America, through 10 countries, through mountains and rainforest, sleeping on the jungle floor in wet clothes, foraging for food and desperate for water.
“We suffered a lot,” she says, wiping her eyes with a T-shirt on the bed.
When they finally made it to the U.S., Louinel was kept in immigration detention for the next nine months.
Clotaire, who was released after five days, set up in Delray Beach, Fla., where her sister-in-law lives. Over the next months, the family would spend $7,000 on lawyers, trying to get Louinel out of detention. Instead, he was deported to Haiti.
Clotaire was given a date to appear before immigration authorities with her children, and told to bring a lawyer. A lawyer would cost another $6,600 — money she didn’t have.
She got a job at a supermarket for two months, and took a bus to Plattsburgh for $400. After paying for food along the way and her taxi to the border — another $150 — she had about $3 in her wallet when she crossed into Canada.
Arriving via Roxham Rd. on July 17, Clotaire and her boys would become three of the more than 7,000 mostly Haitian asylum seekers who have crossed into Quebec since Canada Day.
First they were brought to a hotel, then to Boscoville — a former re-education centre for juvenile delinquents in Rivière-des-Prairies/Pointe-aux-Trembles, that’s been turned into a temporary shelter for migrants — where they stayed for two weeks. Then, through the kindness of strangers, they landed in apartment No. 9 in Montreal North.
“I found a first apartment, but I had no money to leave a deposit, so someone else got it,” Clotaire explains.
Then an older lady saw her on the street and introduced her to her landlord.
The Clotaires are among the 2,014 migrants who as of Monday had moved out of a temporary shelter and into their own apartment, however sparse it may be.
On Friday, Clotaire will be one of the 4,000 asylum seekers to get a welfare check from the Quebec government this week, about $1,000 for her and the kids.
Subtract the rent ($667), the phone ($40) — a lifeline to her husband in Port-au-Prince — and electricity ($100) and she will have $233 left.
At the top of her list of things to buy are groceries, a bus pass and maybe a few chairs.
“When I get a work permit, I’ll work. My kids will go to school and one day, my husband will come and join us and we’ll be together.”
Haitian refugee Joanne Clotaire and her sons Lucas and Looandjee, left, have only one place to sit down in their sparsely furnished apartment in Montreal but they are grateful for a place to live.