Cross­ing Over at Rox­ham Road


Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY HEATHER ROBB FROM MAISONNEUVE

Since 2017, thou­sands of asy­lum seek­ers have en­tered Canada by walk­ing across the bor­der in ru­ral Que­bec. Here are the sto­ries of two such fam­i­lies. HEATHER ROBB FROM MAISONNEUVE

Adeesewa Ogun­lesi* and her hus­band, Ola­juwan*, were tired but ex­cited when their taxi pulled up in front of a four-storey walkup in sub­ur­ban Mon­treal on De­cem­ber 21, 2017. After spend­ing their first two and a half weeks in Canada at a YMCA shel­ter down­town, the onebed­room apart­ment would be their first real home in this new coun­try.

The Ogun­le­sis—Adeesewa, 33 years old and 37 weeks preg­nant, and Ola­juwan, 34—were two of 20,000 asy­lum seek­ers who’d en­tered Canada “ir­reg­u­larly” at Rox­ham Road last year—they walked across an un­manned stretch of bor­der, only declar­ing their pres­ence when they were al­ready in­side the coun­try. Aside from the win­ter coats and boots they were wear­ing, which they’d been given at the shel­ter, the cou­ple owned noth­ing but two suit­cases filled with cloth­ing, toi­letry items and es­sen­tial doc­u­ments they’d brought from the United States.

They soon dis­cov­ered that the land­lord hadn’t cleaned the apart­ment after the pre­vi­ous ten­ant’s de­par­ture. A few odds and ends had been left be­hind, but there was no fridge and noth­ing cov­er­ing the win­dows. The Ogun­le­sis had none of the ba­sics that make a house liv­able. They lay on the floor the first two nights, lay­er­ing their clothes to keep warm.

Just be­fore leav­ing the shel­ter, the Ogun­le­sis had re­ceived their first wel­fare cheque, for $950. Rent was $650 per month and they needed a cell­phone and ac­cess to the In­ter­net, since Ola­juwan planned to look for work. So their bud­get for home fur­nish­ings and food—not to men­tion sup­plies for the baby, who was due Jan­uary 11—was ex­tremely lim­ited.

On the third night, their land­lord gave them a worn-out mat­tress and, later in the week, lent them a sofa and a fridge. They reg­is­tered at a neigh­bour­hood food bank and bought kitchen items and clean­ing prod­ucts from a dol­lar store. Though the Ogun­le­sis are Chris­tian, their first Christ­mas in their new home was a sub­dued af­fair: they shared two plates of fried chicken and rice and gazed out their win­dow at their first snow­storm.

A week or so later, a neigh­bour told Adeesewa about a Face­book group called YMCA Refugee Claimant Do­na­tions. Adeesewa re­quested mem­ber­ship to the closed group, which had about 2,300 mem­bers at the time, and wrote a post seek­ing a crib, cook­ing uten­sils, baby clothes, a stroller and a bed.

While many of the sto­ries fo­cus­ing on fam­i­lies like the Ogun­le­sis end at the bor­der, reach­ing Canada is, in some senses, just the be­gin­ning of their tri­als. Once here, refugee claimants must com­pletely re­build their lives.

* Names have been changed to pro­tect pri­vacy.

IN 2017, AMER­I­CAN pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump be­gan a crack­down on mi­grants to the U.S., start­ing with the first of three tem­po­rary travel bans, which would be deemed un­con­sti­tu­tional in Fe­bru­ary 2018, only to be up­held in June. The day after Trump signed the ex­ec­u­tive or­der for the ban, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau tweeted a mes­sage to “those flee­ing per­se­cu­tion, ter­ror [and] war: Cana­di­ans will wel­come you, re­gard­less of your faith.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion also dis­cussed stop­ping re­newal of the Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus Pro­gram (TPS) for some of the groups who had pre­vi­ously been granted it, in­clud­ing Haitians, Nicaraguans, Hon­durans and Sal­vado­rans. Cre­ated in 1990, TPS al­lows peo­ple from coun­tries suf­fer­ing from nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or civil con­flicts to live and work in the U.S. for a pe­riod of time.

Trump’s threats to TPS cre­ated an at­mos­phere of un­cer­tainty, con­tribut­ing to a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in asy­lum seek­ers ar­riv­ing at the U.S.–Canada bor­der. From 2016 to 2017, the num­ber of asy­lum claims in Canada dou­bled, from about 25,000 to 50,000, and Que­bec’s share of those claims sky­rock­eted from about a quar­ter to half of the coun­try’s to­tal. (Those num­bers re­mained sim­i­lar into 2018, with Que­bec pro­cess­ing over 18,000 of Canada’s 35,365 asy­lum claims by Oc­to­ber.)

Most of the claims made in Que­bec came from ir­reg­u­lar cross­ings at Rox­ham Road, a stretch of gravel road lo­cated near Saint-Bernard-de-La­colle. While the Canada–United States Safe Third Coun­try Agree­ment stip­u­lates that in­di­vid­u­als must only seek asy­lum from the first of the two coun­tries they ar­rive in, peo­ple can seek asy­lum when they en­ter the coun­try ir­reg­u­larly, be­tween of­fi­cial en­try points.

Haitians, who have cul­tural and lin­guis­tic ties to Que­bec and whose TPS sta­tus in the U.S. was be­ing threat­ened, made up the largest group of asy­lum seek­ers who crossed at Rox­ham Road in 2017. Nige­rian asy­lum seek­ers made up the sec­ond-largest group.

Nige­ri­ans have never had TPS in the U.S. and they have dif­fer­ent rea­sons for com­ing to Canada; push fac­tors for flee­ing Nige­ria—a coun­try of 190 mil­lion re­ferred to as the “Gi­ant of Africa”— in­clude or­ga­nized crime, re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion, trib­al­ism and fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion. Peo­ple leav­ing the Mid­dle East and Africa say it’s eas­ier to get Amer­i­can visas than Cana­dian visas; this means many Nige­ri­ans plan to


land first in the U.S. be­fore mak­ing their way to Canada.

For their part, the Ogun­le­sis had been liv­ing in Hous­ton, Texas, prior to mak­ing their walk down Rox­ham Road. They’d fled Nige­ria in Fe­bru­ary 2017, fear­ing for their lives after hav­ing their house set on fire by a rebel mili­tia group Ola­juwan had joined, then left, when he was young.

The Ogun­le­sis had started out in Hous­ton with six-month tourist visas, but these ex­pired in Au­gust. They had heard it was next to im­pos­si­ble to get ap­proved for asy­lum in the U.S., but sto­ries of mi­grants walk­ing north into Canada near Platts­burgh, N.Y., were mak­ing in­ter­na­tional head­lines. As Adeesewa’s due date ap­proached, they de­cided to make the move.

After cross­ing the bor­der, the Ogun­le­sis were ar­rested by the RCMP; at this time, like other mi­grants be­fore them, they de­clared their wish to claim asy­lum. The po­lice tem­po­rar­ily re­tained their pass­ports and the lit­tle money they had on them—a to­tal of $1—as well as their lug­gage. They were taken to a de­ten­tion cen­tre, where they were held for 10 hours.

Once they had passed the se­cu­rity and health tests and the po­lice de­ter­mined they were el­i­gi­ble to open a refugee claim, they were taken to a sta­tion set up by the Red Cross, where they were served break­fast while wait­ing for the next bus to Mon­treal. From there, the cou­ple headed to the down­town YMCA, one of three shel­ters in the city then set up for refugee claimants.

Though the flow of peo­ple across Rox­ham Road qui­eted down some­what over the colder months from the peak of around 250 per day in Au­gust 2017, the stream was still steady. In Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary of 2018, roughly 50 peo­ple were placed in tem­po­rary shel­ters in the Mon­treal area ev­ery day. (In April, Que­bec im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter David Heur­tel an­nounced that Mon­treal’s tem­po­rary shel­ters were at 70 per cent ca­pac­ity and that they would no longer place peo­ple com­ing from ir­reg­u­lar cross­ings like Rox­ham Road once they reached 85 per cent.)

Once shel­tered, asy­lum seek­ers must com­plete the ap­pli­ca­tion for refugee sta­tus. Due to back­logs, they will likely wait about a year be­fore their refugee hear­ing takes place. The Ogun­le­sis were given an ini­tial hear­ing date in July 2018 but were later told it had been post­poned in­def­i­nitely due to the back­log.


IN 2017, VOL­UN­TEERS and so­cial work­ers at the YMCA tem­po­rary shel­ter founded the Face­book group YMCA Refugee Claimant Do­na­tions, the one Adeesewa dis­cov­ered a few weeks after ar­riv­ing in Canada. Over the past year, the group—now known as Refugee Claimant Do­na­tions Mon­treal—has grown to over 6,000 mem­bers.

The group wasn’t just a de­pot for those seek­ing and those look­ing to do­nate—a com­mu­nity seemed to be flour­ish­ing. Ev­ery day, posters shared elab­o­rate thank yous, nam­ing the peo­ple who’d given them goods. After one woman wrote about how she wanted to learn to knit clothes for her baby, a Mon­trealer started up a knit­ting cir­cle for new­com­ers.

Tanatswa Mu­toro*, a 36-year-old woman orig­i­nally from Zim­babwe, heard about the group while stay­ing at the YMCA shel­ter in Novem­ber 2017 with her Nige­rian hus­band, Olamide Eze*, 35, and their two chil­dren. Like Ogun­lesi, she put out a call for help when it was time to set up her fam­ily’s apart­ment. Olivia Viveros, a 44-year-old li­brary clerk and mother to an 11-year-old boy, re­sponded.

Viveros orig­i­nally went onto the YMCA Refugee Claimant Do­na­tions page in Septem­ber 2017 to do­nate kids’ cloth­ing. Over the course of the fall, she found her­self be­com­ing very in­volved in the group. “Ev­ery time I met a new fam­ily, I wanted to help them out,” Viveros says. “I’d ar­rive with

a snow­suit for one child and re­al­ize there were three oth­ers in the fam­ily who needed snow­suits, too. So I would look for three more.”

When Viveros ran out of stuff, she be­gan turn­ing to her fam­ily and friends for do­na­tions. Then she be­gan post­ing on Bazar de Villeray, a com­mu­nity buy-and-sell Face­book group with 17,792 mem­bers. She com­piled lists of the things needed by new­comer fam­i­lies and matched it against her cat­a­logue of promised do­na­tions. Soon she was spend­ing week­ends and evenings pick­ing up and de­liv­er­ing do­na­tions all over the city. For larger items, she even­tu­ally started a Go­FundMe page to raise money to hire movers.

Over the course of Mu­toro and Eze’s first few weeks in their apart­ment, Viveros pro­vided them with win­ter cloth­ing, a kitchen table and chairs, a sofa and kitchen uten­sils. Later on, she brought things like a hair dryer, work boots for Eze and toys for the kids.

IN FE­BRU­ARY OF 2017, the City of Mon­treal de­clared it­self a “sanc­tu­ary city”— mean­ing a space where un­doc­u­mented mi­grants don’t have to fear de­por­ta­tion if they seek out as­sis­tance, but also, per­haps just as im­por­tantly, sig­nalling a com­mit­ment to en­sur­ing es­sen­tial ser­vices to refugees of all dif­fer­ent sta­tuses.

While this was a pos­i­tive move, many crit­ics feel that the city still has a long way to go. “There is a sig­nif­i­cant lack of ser­vices for asy­lum seek­ers,” says Florence Bour­deau, the project man­ager of the Que­bec Coali­tion of Ser­vices for Refugees and Im­mi­grants, a group of more than 140 or­ga­ni­za­tions that work to pro­tect the rights of im­mi­grants, refugees and claimants in Que­bec.

Bour­deau says that the prob­lem of un­der­fund­ing ex­isted long be­fore the 2017 in­crease but wors­ened when the num­bers rose. Un­like else­where in Canada, Que­bec is re­spon­si­ble for the re­set­tle­ment of refugees in the prov­ince; fed­eral fund­ing is dis­trib­uted via Que­bec’s im­mi­gra­tion min­istry. Bour­deau thinks that both the pro­vin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments need to step up their game when it comes to ad­dress­ing asy­lum seek­ers’ needs.

Echo­ing the Ogun­le­sis’ ex­pe­ri­ence, Bour­deau says that the ini­tial wel­fare cheque they re­ceive isn’t enough to set up a new life. She also has con­cerns about what kind of hous­ing is avail­able, and she thinks there’s a gap in ser­vices when it comes to health care.


Although refugee claimants have ba­sic health cov­er­age un­der the In­terim Fed­eral Health Pro­gram, ac­cess­ing it can be very hard. Many clin­ics and some hos­pi­tals are un­aware of the pro­gram or are re­luc­tant to fill out the pa­per­work needed to be re­im­bursed for the care.

“As far as we know, there are a hand­ful of clin­ics in the Mon­treal area that openly ac­cept refugee claimants,” Bour­deau says. “It’s not nearly suf­fi­cient to cover the num­ber of refugee claimants we have. There are peo­ple with se­ri­ous health-care needs. And for those with men­tal-health is­sues, it is even more chal­leng­ing to ac­cess ser­vices.”

The fi­nal ma­jor hur­dle for asy­lum seek­ers, ac­cord­ing to Bour­deau, is ob­tain­ing a work per­mit. Though there are a few or­ga­ni­za­tions that can help with a work-per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion— both non-prof­its and govern­ment of­fices—no or­ga­ni­za­tions re­ceive any spe­cial fund­ing for this ser­vice.

More­over, Bour­deau says, there’s very lit­tle fund­ing de­voted to help­ing asy­lum seek­ers find em­ploy­ment. “There are a few who will help refugee claimants,” she says, “but it is mostly on a vol­un­teer ba­sis.” Though Ola­juwan man­aged to re­ceive a work per­mit and find a job—he works the night shift at an alu­minum-roofing fac­tory, where he can pick up over­time if he likes— not ev­ery­one is so lucky. FOR MONTHS AFTER their ar­rival, Mu­toro’s fam­ily, like Adeesewa’s, was do­ing its best to put down roots. Her el­dest boy en­tered kinder­garten. Eze, like Adeesewa’s hus­band, se­cured a job—in his case, he was work­ing in the cold room of a dairy. The hours were long, as he had no of­fi­cial shift: he ar­rived in the morn­ing and was of­ten ex­pected to stay un­til 11 or 12 at night.

Even­tu­ally, the fam­ily made the de­ci­sion to try their luck in Toronto, mov­ing there in June. Mu­toro and Viveros are still in reg­u­lar con­tact—in fact, they’re friends, and their fam­i­lies spent time to­gether in Toronto dur­ing the sum­mer. “She’s my best girl,” says Mu­toro. “When my son sees her, he runs into her arms like she’s fam­ily.”

Through word of mouth and so­cial me­dia, the Refugee Claimant Do­na­tions Mon­treal group con­tin­ues to grow. Thanks to its vol­un­teers, the Ogun­le­sis’ home has been fur­nished, their baby daugh­ter, Aria*, is dressed and the cou­ple are sleep­ing in a proper bed. Adeesewa has peo­ple she can call if she needs some­thing. The first win­ter wasn’t easy and she and her hus­band would like to find a new apart­ment, but she’s nev­er­the­less feel­ing op­ti­mistic. “Peo­ple have been so good to me here—why would I want to go any­where else?” she asks. “I can see a fu­ture here for my­self and my fam­ily.”

A view of Rox­ham Roadin March 2017.

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