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

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE BUIST

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

PHO­TO­GRAPH BY BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.