THE NEW UNDERGROUND RAILWAY
They’ve fled guns, gangs and torture in their homelands. Now, frightened refugees are fleeing uncertain politics in the United States and turning to Canada as a destination of hope. As The Spectator’s Steve Buist explains, Niagara and Hamilton are seen as
Alvaro Beltran is on the run.
AT FIRST, HE WAS FLEEING El Salvador’s ruthless gangs, which have made the Central American country one of the world’s most dangerous places.
Now Beltran is on the run from U.S. President Donald Trump.
At 6 a.m. on March 21, cold and tired, Beltran made it to the front door of the Vive centre on Buffalo’s East Side, the final American stop on what has become a 21st century version of the Underground Railroad.
If all goes according to plan, Beltran will soon be living in Hamilton with an aunt and her daughter, who have also fled El Salvador.
From across the U.S. and around the world, hundreds of nervous refugees have found their way to Buffalo, fearful of the American president’s policies and what they see as a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the U.S.
They’re massing at the U.S. border hoping for a chance to make it into Canada.
“I would say 98 per cent of the people who walk through our doors are looking to go to Canada,” said Mariah Walker, Canadian services manager for Vive (pronounced Vee-vay). Vive is bursting at the seams, however. Before last November’s election, the refugee shelter normally housed 80 to 120 people. Now, it’s pushing 200 and the overflow is spilling into Buffalo’s nooks and crannies.
Vive’s clients are now staying in church basements and private homes as they await their crack at Canada.
One generous Buffalo couple has taken in 18 asylum seekers. Another 30 are living in a church rectory.
Vive typically used to receive about 100 calls daily. Now, the centre is getting 2,000 a day. Just dealing with the phone calls is stretching the centre’s resources.
“The number of times this past week I’ve heard a desperate person call me their last hope is heartbreaking,” said Anna Ireland, Vive’s chief program officer.
“There’s really been an increase in desperate people who are searching for help.”
BELTRAN DIDN’T WANT TO leave El Salvador.
He grew up in Sonsonate, the city of the palms, about 40 kilometres to the west of the capital, San Salvador. Fifteen minutes to the mountains in one direction, Beltran said, and 15 minutes to the beaches of the Pacific Ocean in the other.
“If it was up to me, I would never have left there,” said Beltran, a softspoken 25-year-old.
Sonsonate’s beauty, however, is betrayed by its incredible brutality — the most violent province in the world’s most violent country.
When Beltran fled El Salvador two years ago, the small Central American country was on its way to earning a grim distinction as the murder capital of the world.
In 2015, there were 104 murders for every 100,000 people in El Salvador. Canada’s rate that year was 1.7 per 100,000.
El Salvador’s notorious gangs, like the dreaded MS-13, are a pervasive problem that has infected everyday life, both inside and outside of the country.
The MS-13 gang has grown powerful enough and bold enough to become the first street gang recognized by the U.S. as an international criminal organization and subject to sanctions.
Beltran graduated with a culinary arts diploma and opened a small restaurant. Then the gangsters came calling, demanding he pay them extortion money.
“Maybe the business isn’t good enough to pay them what they want,” said Beltran.
“I saw some friends that grew up with me be killed by these people,” he said. “They never did nothing wrong, they never did nothing bad.
“We just wanted a better kind of life and they don’t let you have that.”
What would have happened to him if he had stayed in El Salvador? There’s a long pause.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Beltran whispers, on the verge of tears.
So in 2015, Beltran, his mother and his eight-year-old sister left El Salvador for the U.S. His brother stayed behind.
Beltran’s mother married a U.S. citizen and they were all living in Maryland. Beltran had arrived legally on a visitor’s visa but it expired. He decided to just stay on and take his chances.
For two years, he worked at various jobs, sometimes paying taxes, sometimes getting paid under the table in cash.
Then Donald Trump was elected president. There was talk of a wall to be built and travel bans to be set in place.
“I could wait in the United States for my residency but after the president started doing the things he’s doing, I just had fear,” said Beltran. “My family and I decided that the best for me is to go.”
The most painful part was saying goodbye to his young sister, Belen.
“She is like my daughter and I have to leave her over there,” he said. “She doesn’t really understand.”
Beltran went from Maryland to Washington, D.C., then a four-hour bus ride to New York City, then nine more hours by bus to the Buffalo airport, arriving at 4 a.m. He took a quick nap then grabbed a taxi to the Vive centre.
He’s not the first person in his family to follow this path.
The aunt and cousin in Hamilton he’s hoping to join both came through Vive themselves, about four years ago.
He hasn’t brought much with him except plenty of sweaters.
“I just know that it’s a cold country,” he says with a laugh, “but I know that I’m going to be OK.”
Beltran is now waiting for an appointment with the Canada Border Services Agency on the Fort Erie side of the Peace Bridge.
“If something bad happens and they deport me to my country, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Beltran.
“I just want to have a normal life,” he said.
“This is what we have to do to be alive.”
THE VIVE CENTRE — short for its original name, Vive La Casa — is in an old school in a rough part of Buffalo.
Just down the block, a beautiful old brick church stands abandoned with boarded-up windows. Around the corner, there was a murder a few days before Beltran arrived.
The centre was founded more than 30 years ago by a group of Catholic nuns and originally based in a convent in Lackawanna.
In its earlier days, most of the clients came from Central and South America. Now they come from everywhere, including a sizable proportion from Africa.
By 2014, though, the nonprofit organization running Vive was almost out of money and the shelter was in danger of closing.
The following year, a multipronged Buffalo agency called the Jericho Road Community Health Center took over operations of Vive.
Jericho Road was started in 1997 by Dr. Myron Glick and his wife, Joyce, to provide medical care to any and all, regardless of their ability to pay. Jericho Road also operates a clinic in the African country of Sierra Leone.
Glick is guided by his deep Christian faith. Many of the clients at Jericho Road and Vive are Muslim.
But Glick admits his Christian faith has been tested since Trump’s victory.
“It calls into question everything we’ve fought for, for the past 20 years,” said Glick. “We should be especially compassionate to the poorest and most vulnerable, and everyone should have access to health care.”
Some of the new government’s policies have “made a lot of people across the country, and really across the world, afraid,” Glick said.
Glick has a front-row seat to what he calls a “crisis of humanity.”
“People aren’t leaving their countries for no reason,” he said. “They’re here because they are being oppressed in their own country.
“They’re looking for a better way, a better life for their children,” he said. “They’re here and we can’t just turn our backs on them.”
Some of the stories are heartbreaking, Glick said, “but it’s also pretty amazing what people are able to overcome and survive in the midst of stuff that I think I could never survive.
“We see a lot of despair and despondency in the refugee population, but we also see a lot of hope,” Glick said.
Vive started to notice an increase in calls and asylum seekers right after election night in November. When Trump signed the first executive order in late January attempting to implement a travel ban, the numbers went through the roof.
Many of the new arrivals to Vive are people like Beltran, who have been in the States for years.
“We have a lot of people who have been in the U.S. for a long time and who are running,” said Walker, the Canadian services manager.
Under former U.S. administra-
“I saw some friends that grew up with me be killed by these people. They never did nothing wrong, they never did nothing bad.” ALVARO BELTRAN REFUGEE FROM EL SALVADOR “It calls into question everything we’ve fought for, for the past 20 years.” DR. MYRON GLICK FOUNDER, JERICHO ROAD COMMENTING ON THE IMPACT OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY
tions, overstaying a visa wasn’t treated as a big deal by the authorities. That’s not the case now. “There is the chance something might happen and that’s scary for people,” said Ireland, Vive’s chief program officer. “And it varies from state to state and even from city to city.
“It’s created this huge amount of uncertainty for everybody.”
Vive staff will suggest to clients that it might be best if they don’t leave the property if they have uncertain status in the U.S.
Occasionally, agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security circle the building.
When husbands are returned to the U.S. after being refused entry to Canada, the wives are often returned to Vive and required to wear GPS-tracking ankle monitors.
Staff are instructed to not let any law enforcement agencies enter the building without a warrant.
“I don’t think any of the people housed at Vive right now think it’s a slam dunk that they’re going to get to Canada,” said Glick. “They’re very worried.
“This is life or death for them,” he said. FOR A SMALL NUMBER of the residents, Vive is the end of line. Canada won’t be an option.
Take Martial Manyere, for instance, a 29-year-old sports coach and political activist from Zimbabwe who fled his country via South Africa last summer.
He and two other political activists from Zimbabwe flew to New York’s JFK airport, then found their way to Vive with the hope of crossing into Canada.
It was only when Manyere arrived in Buffalo that he learned the rules and realized he didn’t meet the requirements to enter Canada as a refugee.
His story sounds like the script of a James Bond movie.
He says he grew up comfortably in the capital of Harare, his f ather a high-ranking member of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF political party, which has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
By his mid-20s though, Manyere began to question the ruling party’s policies and eventually, he switched sides to become an activist — and a vocal one — for a fledgling opposition party.
Manyere would speak at rallies, agitating against the government. He says he once ripped down a street sign for Robert Mugabe Street in Harare, placed it on the ground next to the rotting carcass of a dog and took a picture. It went viral. His father disowned him.
Still, he wouldn’t stop agitating against the government, perhaps not the smartest decision he’s ever made, he admits.
“They will do something to you.” he said. “Physically, they will hurt you.”
He was eventually charged with treason, among other things, and thrown in jail on more than one occasion.
“You have no idea what a dungeon is like,” said Manyere.
“It’s created this huge amount of uncertainty for everybody.” DR. ANNA IRELAND CHIEF PROGRAM OFFICER, VIVE
“These things you call jails in America? They’re not jails, they’re five-star hotels.”
He says he was beaten mercilessly in jail by mercenaries — his ribs and kidneys, the soles of his feet. He says he was jolted with electrical shocks and thumbtacks were jammed under his fingernails.
He was forced to watch his cellmate get sodomized for 20 minutes with a broom handle.
Eventually, Manyere alleged, he was told by a well-placed source his name was on the list of a death squad.
“They get paid to assassinate people, that’s all they do,” said Manyere. “They wake up in the morning, go to work, black suits, drive black cars with tinted windows. You hardly see them.”
He was released from jail in his lawyer’s custody, then decided to escape.
He was driving down a street and noticed a black car behind him, with tinted windows. When Manyere stopped at a red light, the car pulled up beside him, even though there was only one lane.
Something didn’t feel right. Manyere jumped out of his car and rolled underneath it. A gunshot took out his window and the assailants fled. He ran home and found his house ransacked.
He called in some favours and obtained a new passport and visa within a matter of hours.
The next day he went back to his house to gather some clothes before making his way to the border with South Africa.
The front door was unlocked. He heard a glass smash in his kitchen.
His dog, Rex, warned him there were people inside.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed two men come out of the house next door.
Rex started barking then attacked the two men. That gave Manyere enough time to run.
“The last sound I heard from Rex was the sound a dog makes when he’s dying,” said Manyere. “That’s when I knew that Rex had taken a bullet for me.
“He gave me the 10 seconds I needed for a head start.”
He took a bus across the border then on to Johannesburg.
Manyere has started the process of applying for refugee status in the U.S. but his preference is to still find a way to get to Canada.
One thing is for sure — he’s not going back to Africa.
“The only way I’m going back is in a coffin,” he said. “I would choose to stay in a U.S. prison rather than go back to Zimbabwe.”
WHEN BELTRAN crosses the border into Canada, he’ll be bringing with him a small suitcase and a backpack.
He reaches into one of the pockets of the backpack and pulls out a crumpled little plastic bracelet in the shape of a heart. It’s too small to even fit on his wrist.
As he was about to flee Maryland, his sister handed him the bracelet and told him to keep it close.
“She told me ‘It’s from me to you,’” he said.
“‘When you look at it, you will know that I miss you.’”
“We have a lot of people who have been in the U.S. for a long time and who are running.” MARIAH WALKER CANADIAN SERVICES MANAGER, VIVE
Alvaro Beltran holds the tiny bracelet his young sister gave him when he headed for the Canadian border. “When you look at it, you will know that I miss you.”
Alvaro Beltran, above, discusses his refugee claim. He fled the murderous gangs of El Salvador and now he’s fleeing American immigration policy. The Vive centre in Buffalo, left, has been assisting a flood of refugees like Beltran.
Dr. Myron Glick, founder of Jericho Road Ministries, which took over operations for Vive. His Christian faith has been tested by President Trump’s policies.
Dr. Anna Ireland is Vive’s chief program officer. The centre went from getting 100 calls a day to 2,000 a day. "There’s really been an increase in desperate people who are searching for help."
Martial Manyere survived an attempt on his life before finally fleeing Zimbabwe last summer. He’s been staying at Buffalo’s Vive shelter while he awaits processing for asylum.