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

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE BUIST

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.

BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Roy McGregor’s ti­tle is “agency sup­port,” which re­ally means he does al­most any­thing nec­es­sary to keep the process run­ning smoothly.

DEREK GEE, BUF­FALO NEWS

Martha Ma­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fort Erie Mul­ti­cul­tural Cen­tre at the New­comer Cen­tre at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont.

BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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