REFUGEE CLAIMANTS From a stream to a flood
On this day, refugees have come to the Newcomer Centre from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Uganda and Bangladesh. Each person has a story. But their claims have to be validated before they are allowed into Canada
OMID DANISH SITS RAMROD STRAIGHT in his seat, nattily attired in a suit jacket, a huge smile plastered across his face. Nestled up against his arm with a shy smile is Alina Yahyaie, his wife.
They’ve been married since last July but they’ve only been able to spend one month together in that time. Danish (pronounced Dah-NISH), who fled Afghanistan three years ago, has been living in Richmond Hill, while Alina has been back in the capital, Kabul, hoping to join her husband in Canada. This is her big day. They’re inside the Peace Bridge Newcomer Centre on the Fort Erie side of the U.S.-Canada border, nervously awaiting a decision from the Canada Border Services Agency officer in the next room on whether Alina will be allowed into the country to make a refugee claim.
A lot rides on the decision. If she’s turned down, 20-year-old Alina will likely end up back in Afghanistan with no chance to ever reapply for refugee status in Canada. “I will die,” she says simply. This is a scene that plays out a dozen, sometimes two dozen, times a day on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge, one of the country’s busiest land border crossings for people seeking asylum in Canada.
What was once a stream has now become a flood of refugee claimants fleeing the uncertainty of the U.S. under President Donald Trump to take their chances in Canada.
In the first two months of 2015, for example, about 250 refugee claimants passed through the Peace Bridge Newcomer Centre.
In the first two months of this year, the number had more than doubled to 525.
ON THIS MORNING IN LATE March, there are already 10 appointments with CBSA officers and one “spontaneous arrival,” as they’re called — in this case, a young man who walked across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo the previous evening with a backpack and a duffel bag, then waited all night to get a hearing.
They’ve come from Afghanistan, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Uganda and Bangladesh on this day alone.
This will be their first step in the process to stay permanently in Canada.
Here at the border, they must convince CBSA they meet one of the exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. For the vast majority of refugee claimants, the exception is having a closely related family member already living legally in Canada.
If they’re admitted, they have 15 days to file a refugee claim with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Some of the asylum seekers arrive at the Peace Bridge with just a name of someone in Canada, or perhaps just a phone number or the name of a person at a shelter.
“Some people have come with a phone number written on their hand,” said Martha Mason, executive director of the Fort Erie Multicultural Centre, a registered charity that operates the Newcomer Centre.
The centre shares space with CBSA in a building right at the Canadian border crossing, just steps away from the vehicle inspection lanes that are often clogged with travellers.
The Newcomer Centre is a unique model that exists nowhere else in Canada and it has attracted attention from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
For those crossing at the Peace Bridge seeking to make a refugee claim in Canada, the Newcomer Centre will provide them with food and drink, a children’s play area, a place to sit and relax and, perhaps most importantly, a few friendly faces while they await what can be a nervejangling daylong process to gain entry to Canada.
Staff at the centre will also help arrange travel for those who are admitted, hook them up with social service agencies where they’re headed and even help them find space in a shelter if they have nowhere to turn.
“We’re kind of like the best-kept secret,” said Mason.
ROY MCGREGOR GREW UP in Fort Erie and aside from a trip to Mexico once, he’s spent most of his life in the area.
When he started working at the Newcomer Centre 11 years ago, he admits he was more than a little skeptical of the stories he started hearing from the refugees.
“My honest opinion was that everyone was lying,” said McGregor. “These people are liars because there’s no way their governments would allow this stuff to happen.
“It took about three months to really realize that these people don’t know each other so how can these stories all be so similar and not be true?
“Then I had a little more compassion for them, more understanding,” he said.
That epiphany hasn’t been great for his home life, however.
“I’ve been here at 4:45 in the morning and I’ve been here at 10 at night,” he said.
His title is “agency support,” which really means he does almost anything and everything necessary to keep the process running smoothly.
Often, he’ll stick around to make sure that a successful asylum seeker catches the last bus out at night heading to Toronto. Some nights, he’ll even drive the occasional stranded family to the Niagara Falls bus station if they miss the last one from Fort Erie.
For some of the handful of staff members at the Newcomer Centre, 12-hour work days from Monday to Friday are common.
Sometimes, CBSA officials will call Mason at home on the weekend to see if she would agree to come down and open the centre because so many asylum seekers have arrived unexpectedly.
Each day, the Salvation Army brings food to the centre — pizza, vegetable trays, baked goods, crackers and cheese. A play area and a couple of televisions help keep the children entertained.
Communication can be a challenge and Google Translate gets a good workout on the office computer.
McGregor recalled a time it took five people each translating from one language to another to get a message through to someone.
Once a claimant has been cleared for entry to Canada, family members are allowed into the waiting area in the Newcomer Centre. Sometimes, family members haven’t seen each other for decades.
“Some cry, some scream,” said Leonis Rackauskas, the centre’s port of entry services manager. “Doorman,” as he describes himself.
“Sometimes I have to leave because it’s so emotional,” added McGregor.
Some of the stories they hear during the course of a day are horrific and some are inspiring.
There was the refugee claimant from Africa who was the first woman to arrive in Canada with a PhD in a certain branch of quantum physics.
There was one man who flew from Cuba to Central America and then walked north to the Mexico-U.S. border, sleeping in sugar cane fields along the way.
And then there was a family from Colombia who said they’d be killed if they were sent back to South America. They were turned down in their attempt to enter Canada and forced back to Colombia.
“Three or four days later, we got news they were killed,” said Rackauskas.
“That family was telling a story and you think ‘Maybe yes, maybe no,’” he said. “Then you figure out they were telling a true story.”
WAITING INSIDE the Newcomer Centre for their appointment is a family of four fleeing El Salvador, hoping to start a new life in Guelph.
The husband, 42, wants to remain anonymous because he has an unusual name that could be recognized back in San Salvador.
He had his own logistics company and his wife worked at a bank.
“Our girls were in a good private school, we were trying to survive and work hard and do things the best way we could,” he said. “But it was pretty difficult.”
A few years ago, the husband organized a small neighbourhood group to defend their street from the gangs that terrorize the Central American country.
They hired a security guard, installed gates at every access point and painted over the gang’s graffiti.
That act of defiance made him a marked man.
One night, he went outside to bring his car in to his garage. A couple of gangsters jumped out from behind some trees. They dragged him into his garage and put a gun to his head as his family watched, crying.
He decided to go to the police but
“It took about three months to really realize that these people don’t know each other so how can these stories all be so similar and not be true?” ROY MCGREGOR PEACE BRIDGE NEWCOMER CENTRE “Some people have come with a phone number written on their hand.” MARTHA MASON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FORT ERIE MULTICULTURAL CENTRE
even that’s a risky move, he said.
“If the guys from the gang see you going to the police, they’re going to kill me,” he said. “Plus, you cannot trust the police, you can’t trust no one. It’s pretty dangerous.”
He installed an electric fence around his property and turned his home into a small fortress.
“When someone knocked on the door, we were scared to answer it,” he said. “It’s really stressing.”
In January, he came to Guelph to visit an uncle dying of cancer. While he was here, his wife told him the gangsters had come around looking to kill him because he had stopped paying them extortion money.
He and his wife decided it was time to leave El Salvador for good.
Canada feels like the right place, he said, especially since he’s seen interviews with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau telling the world there’s a place for refugees and immigrants here.
“We left all of our lives there, our house, everything,” he said. “I still don’t know everything I need to know about Canada, but we trust that everything is going to be fine.
“We still think Canada is going to be the very best place for us,” he said. “We trust the words of Trudeau and all people who say that refugees are welcome here.”
THE SUN WAS JUST SETTING on the evening of March 23 when Dmitri Tsurkan set out walking to Canada from the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge.
“You don’t cross the border every day walking in the dark,” Tsurkan says with a dry sense of humour.
He was a spontaneous arrival, or a “walk-in” as they’re sometimes called at the border crossing, a phenomenon that’s becoming more and more common at the Peace Bridge as the number of refugee claimants fleeing the U.S. for Canada skyrockets.
From Dec. 1, 2015 to Feb. 22, 2016, there were 42 spontaneous arrivals of asylum seekers at the Peace Bridge.
A year later — from Dec. 1, 2016 to Feb. 22, 2017 — spontaneous arrivals had quadrupled to 166.
Tsurkan is a 25-year-old merchant marine officer from the Black Sea port city of Odessa, Ukraine.
But Tsurkan is an ethnic Russian and he says that was making for a “very unpleasant situation” at a time when tensions between Ukraine and Russia are at full boil.
His wife, also an ethnic Russian, was involved in politics in Ukraine. She flew to Toronto last year and made a claim for refugee status.
“We are really, really squeezed,” Tsurkan said.
“In uncivilized countries they just push you,” he said. “It’s so crazy.”
Now it’s his turn to run, after finally deciding it wasn’t safe to stay in Odessa any longer.
He flew to JFK airport, caught a train to Niagara Falls, N.Y. then on to Buffalo. He took a taxi to the Peace Bridge and walked across.
On the other side of the Newcomer Centre by the children’s play area is Aliceritah Nabacwa and her fiveyear-old son, Elmer.
Nabacwa, 34, was a social worker near Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Some of her clientele were members of the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
That made her a government target because Uganda has outlawed homosexuality.
It’s called the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014, which makes sexual acts between persons of the same sex punishable by life imprisonment.
This latest version of the law is actually an improvement from an earlier one. Originally, homosexual acts were punishable by death.
“Given that I’m a social worker and with my ethics, I’m not supposed to discriminate against anyone,” said Nabacwa.
She was attacked and then she was kidnapped, she says, by government officials.
Nabacwa travelled to Seattle to attend an HIV conference and while there, she received a phone call from a workmate in Uganda warning her she shouldn’t return to the country because authorities were looking for her.
Nabacwa’s husband, William, is a Canadian citizen living in Edmonton and working as a heavy equipment operator.
She made her way to the Vive refugee shelter in Buffalo on March 2 and stayed in a church rectory that’s now needed to house the overflow crowd of asylum seekers flooding into the border city.
She admits she doesn’t know a lot about Canada, certainly not the immense size of the country.
When she learned of her appointment at the Peace Bridge the day before, she phoned her husband and asked him if he was going to drive to the border to meet her.
“He said ‘What are you talking about? I need to board a flight,’” she said with a laugh. “It was going to cost him an arm and a leg just for a one-way flight.”
THE MORNING WANES and the tension mounts, but the smile never leaves Danish’s face.
A civil engineer by training, he fled Kabul for Canada in 2014 with just a cellphone and $700 in his pocket, he said.
Now, at age 28, he’s been accepted as a permanent resident, he’s working in construction and he hopes to qualify as a civil engineer in Canada. Alina, meanwhile, has been studying law in Kabul.
Danish and Alina were married on July 15 in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was too dangerous to get married in Afghanistan, he said.
They spent a month together and then he had to return to Canada, a country he now loves more than his birthplace.
“Here, I found my freedom, my speech, my work,” he said. “Nobody can ask me about my religion or what do I think or what do you know about this. “I love this country.” Just before noon, a CBSA officer calls Alina into the hearing room.
Minutes later, she emerges, beaming, with a document package in hand.
She’s been accepted into Canada and she’ll have 15 days to file her claim for refugee status. The first hurdle to a new life in Canada has been cleared.
“I’m speechless,” she gasped. “The whole world is mine now.
“I can do anything,” she adds as the couple wave goodbye.
Five minutes later, they’re back at the Newcomer Centre with sheepish grins.
Alina ran off in such a hurry she forgot her suitcase in the luggage room.
First, Danish is going to show her Niagara Falls. Some day soon, he said, he’ll take her to the top of the CN Tower.
“Of course,” said Danish. “That’s our symbol.”
AND FINALLY, there’s a phone call from Mariah Walker, Canadian services manager at the Vive Shelter.
After four weeks of waiting, an appointment at the Peace Bridge has been scheduled tomorrow for Alvaro Beltran, the soft-spoken, frightened young man from El Salvador who hopes to settle in Hamilton with his aunt and her daughter.
Four years ago, Beltran’s aunt made the same journey, passing through Vive and the Newcomer Centre before landing at Hamilton’s Micah House, an emergency refugee shelter in central Hamilton that has been bursting at the seams this year because of the surge in asylum seekers.
If Beltran is successful tomorrow, he’ll have crossed the first hurdle in his attempt to live in Canada.
If he’s not, however, he’ll be taken back to Buffalo and put in jail until he’s deported back to one of the most dangerous countries on earth.
McGregor recalled a time it took five people each translating from one language to another to get a message through to someone.
Omid Danish, who lives in Richmond Hill, sits with his wife Alina Yahyaie as her refugee application process plays out in Fort Erie. They fled Afghanistan separately.
Roy McGregor’s title is “agency support,” which really means he does almost anything necessary to keep the process running smoothly.
Martha Mason, executive director of the Fort Erie Multicultural Centre at the Newcomer Centre at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont.
Refugees wait for processing at the Peace Bridge Newcomer Centre.
Roy McGregor assists immigrant Incilay Kircali, centre, who is joining her son Fatish, left, and husband Hakan, right, in Canada.