Crossing Over at Roxham Road
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.
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
THE OGUNLESIS FLED NIGERIA IN NOVEMBER 2017 AFTER HAVING THEIR HOUSE SET ON FIRE BY A REBEL MILITIA GROUP.
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.
AFTER ONE WOMAN WROTE ABOUT WANTING TO LEARN TO KNIT CLOTHES FOR HER BABY, A LOCAL STARTED UP A KNITTING CIRCLE.
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.
THROUGH WORD OF MOUTH AND SOCIAL MEDIA, THE REFUGEE CLAIMANT DONATIONS MONTREAL GROUP CONTINUES TO GROW.
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.