EMPTY APART­MENT, NEW HOPE

Haitian fam­ily finds sanc­tu­ary here

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CATHER­INE SOLYOM STRANGER HELPED OUT csolyom@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/csolyom

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.”

JOHN MA­HONEY

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.

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