After Roxham Road
Thousands of asylum seekers arrived in Quebec last year. Heather Robb investigates what happened to them after the flashbulbs died down.
Adeesewa Ogunlesi* and her husband Olajuwan* were tired but excited when their taxi pulled up in front of a beige, four-storey walk-up apartment building in suburban Montreal four days before Christmas 2017. After spending their first two and a half weeks in Canada at a YMCA temporary shelter downtown, the apartment would be their first real home in the country. Adeesewa, thirty-three, and Olajuwan, thirty-four, were two of twenty thousand asylum seekers who’d entered Canada “irregularly” at Roxham Road in 2017—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 US. Adeesewa, who was thirty-seven weeks pregnant, made her way up the three flights of stairs to the one-bedroom apartment slowly, at her own pace, while her husband carried the two suitcases.
When they entered their apartment, they discovered that the landlord hadn’t cleaned it after the previous tenant’s departure. The counters, cupboards and floors were dirty, as was the bathroom. A few odds and ends had been left -behind—a chair in the living room, a stove and a few cans of food in the kitchen. But there was no fridge (in Quebec, appliances are not generally included in the lease for an apartment and renters are expected to have their own) and nothing covering the windows. The Ogunlesis had none of the basics—bed, furniture, pots, pans, kitchen utensils—that make a house liveable. They slept on the floor the first two nights, layering their clothes to keep warm. Neither of them slept very well.
Just before leaving the shelter, the Ogunlesis had received their first welfare cheque of $950. Rent was $650 per month and they needed a cellphone and access to the internet, since Olajuwan planned to look for work as soon as possible. And so their budget for food and home furnishings—not to mention supplies for the soon-to-arrive baby, who was due January 11—was extremely limited. On their third night, their landlord gave them a worn-out mattress he had stored in his garage 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 Dollarama. Though the Ogunlesis are Christian, their first Christmas in their new apartment was a subdued affair. They shared two plates of fried chicken and rice and gazed out their window in awe at their first snowstorm.
After Christmas, they bought a bassinet and a car seat at Walmart and found a few more things, like baby clothes, on Kijiji. But after the birth of their baby girl, Aria*, the list of things the family needed began to expand. Aria quickly outgrew her newborn clothes and bassinet; Adeesewa needed clothes that weren’t maternity clothes. The mattress they slept on was extremely uncomfortable. Worse still, the apartment had a cockroach infestation and being on the floor meant that the cockroaches came to visit them at night. They desperately needed a bed.
Soon, a neighbour told Adeesewa about a Facebook group called YMCA Refugee Claimant Donations. Adeesewa immediately 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—the flights, taxis and buses, the RCMP waiting on the other side—the truth is that reaching Canada is, in some senses, just the beginning. Once here, refugee claimants must completely rebuild their lives, both in major ways, like finding a home and a job, learning a new language and perhaps recovering from past traumas—and in minor but still-important ways, like finding winter coats and boots, beds, tables, pots and pans.
In 2017, Donald Trump began a crackdown on migrants to the United States, starting with the first of three temporary travel bans, which would later be deemed unconstitutional. The day after Trump signed the executive order for the ban, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously 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 US 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 US–Canada border. From 2016 to 2017, the number of asylum claims in Canada doubled from about twenty-five thousand to fifty thousand and Quebec’s share of those claims skyrocketed from about a quarter to half of the country’s total. 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, QC; 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.
In response to the increase in asylum seekers, the Canadian government reportedly proposed amendments to the agreement last September in an effort to decrease the number of people crossing into Canada irregularly. Though the details of the proposal are still unclear, some Conservative MPs have argued that the agreement should be extended to include unofficial entry points, meaning that Canada could begin to turn asylum seekers away at Roxham Road and other unofficial crossings. Several high--profile groups, including the Canadian Council for Refugees and the federal NDP, have challenged the designation of the US as a “safe” country for refugees and called for the agreement to be suspended so that asylum seekers could enter the country at official entry points without being turned away.
Haitians, who have cultural and linguistic ties to Quebec and whose TPS status in the US was being threatened, made up the largest group of asylum seekers who crossed at Roxham Road in 2017. News reports from last year claimed that false rumours had circulated within the Haitian community living in the US, particularly on social media, which suggested that arrival in Canada would guarantee refugee status. Those rumours were eventually dispelled and for that and other reasons, the number of -Haitian refugee claimants died down. But Nigerian asylum seekers, who made up the second largest group of asylum seekers in 2017, continued coming throughout the fall and winter.
Nigerians have never had TPS in the US and they had different reasons for coming to Canada. Referred to as the “Giant of Africa,” Nigeria, which has a population of 190 million, contains over three hundred ethnic groups and as many languages. The country has two predominant religions—Islam in the north and Christianity in the south—and Indigenous religions are also practised. The reasons people cite as push factors for fleeing the country are diverse, but organized crime, conflict, tribalism, religious persecution and abusive practises like female genital mutilation are among them. “When crimes occur, some people feel they won’t be protected by the police or the Nigerian state,” says Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s representative in Canada. “Sometimes a person belongs to a particular cultural or ethnic or religious group and they are a minority within a particular region of the country and so they don’t have much confidence in the public institutions. Also, you have people who are fleeing poverty, looking for a better life, access to better education, better opportunities.” 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 US before eventually 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 to Houston from Nigeria in February 2017, in fear for their lives. When he was young, Olajuwan had joined a rebel militia group; he hadn’t been fully aware of the group’s nature or activities, Adeesewa says, and later abandoned the group. Concerned that -Olajuwan would leak information about them, the group swore revenge. After leaving the region for five years, Olajuwan eventually made his way back to be close to his family. He married Adeesewa and they settled into a house together. But then one day, the Ogunlesis came home to find their house on fire. They say they reported the incident to the police, but nothing really came of it. Friends advised them to run for their lives and that’s when they decided to go to the US.
The Ogunlesis had started out with six-month tourist visas, but these expired in August. “We were illegal immigrants,” says Adeesewa. “We had no papers to work.” They had heard that it was next to impossible to get approved for asylum in the US. But stories of migrants walking north into Canada near Plattsburgh, New York, were making international headlines that summer. The couple heard about the stream of people crossing on the news and through acquaintances on Facebook. As Adeesewa’s due date approached, they decided to make the move.
“I was scared at first,” says Adeesewa. “I didn’t want to get sent back to our country. But at the same time, I didn’t feel safe in the US. We saw that Canada needs immigrants, needs workers and we saw it as an opportunity.”
The Ogunlesis saved up their money, sold the few belongings they’d acquired in the US and followed the well-trodden path to Roxham Road. 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 one dollar—as well as their luggage. They were taken to a detention center, where they were held for ten hours. Here, the very pregnant Adeesewa was kept warm and given water and snacks, while Olajuwan was questioned about their reasons for leaving the US. After they passed the security and health tests and the police determined that 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 Montreal then set up for refugee claimants. It was cold and they didn’t yet have winter clothing.
Once sheltered, asylum seekers must complete the application for refugee status. Then, they can apply for a work permit. The application for refugee status is then sent on to the federal Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB); due to a backlog of refugee claim applications (at the end of 2017, Canada had about forty-three thousand asylum claims pending), asylum seekers 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.
In Quebec, while asylum seekers wait for their initial hearing, PRAIDA (the Regional Program for the Settlement and Integration of Asylum Seekers) is mandated to help them as they try to settle in. Asylum seekers have the right to social assistance, temporary -shelter, assistance in finding an apartment, medical care, legal aid, French classes and, for those under eighteen, schooling. The first weeks they spend in the temporary shelter are busy ones: in addition to meeting with Immigration and applying for welfare, they must also meet with PRAIDA social workers and look for an apartment.
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, roughly fifty people were placed in temporary shelters in the Montreal area every day.
The majority of those who cross at Roxham Road are permitted to make a claim for refugee status; however, not everyone who applies is approved and not everyone gets to stay in Canada. In 2017, says Beuze, 63 percent of refugee claims heard were accepted; processing delays and fees, though, mean that it can take three years or more to acquire permanent residence after being accepted as a refugee. For those whose initial application is rejected, an appeal process exists, and it is eventually possible to request permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Still, some refugee claimants do get sent back to their country of origin. Adeesewa and Olajuwan are just two of many working to make a home in Canada, uncertain if they’ll even get to stay.
Over the Christmas holidays, I was decluttering my Montreal apartment and decided to donate a few bags of clothes my son had outgrown. On one online community forum, someone recommended donating items via a Facebook group called YMCA Refugee Claimant Donations—the same group Adeesewa discovered a few weeks after the birth of her baby girl. “If you -really want to make someone’s day,” the poster wrote, “check out this group.”
I requested to join. Once in, I discovered posts from newly arrived refugee claimants like Adeesewa, some who had been in the city for only a few days. They were asking for everything from clothing to furniture to appliances. Many were in the process of leaving the temporary shelters and needed furnishings for their new homes. And then there were the posts from locals, like me, offering household items to give away. For each item posted, there were often multiple newcomers responding in hopes they could claim it.
The majority of the messages were in English, though there were also some in French and a few in Spanish. I had heard of the Haitian refugee claimants, but was surprised to discover that most of the members of the group were Nigerian. Many people posting had families and quite a few introduced themselves as single mothers. On New Year’s Eve, a man named Wale Ibirogba* wrote the following: “A wonderful morning to all wonderful people here, your kindness towards refugee here in Montreal is highly appreciated, I hope and wish mine won’t be different. Am seeking assistance, my wife just gave birth to twins (two girls) in -addition [we have] a girl, six years old and a boy, four years old. I would appreciate any form of assistance to make us settle down in Montreal.” To illustrate the post, Ibirogba had uploaded a photo of himself at the bedside of his wife and his brand-new baby girls in the hospital. He was wearing scrubs and beaming. Ibirogba’s post received dozens of messages of congratulations as well as offers of help with baby supplies, winter clothing and home furnishings.
The Facebook group was founded in April 2017 by volunteers and social workers at the YMCA temporary shelter for refugee claimants. Over the past year, it has grown to over 4,800 members, with more new people joining every day. As the group grew, it took on a life of its own, and new administrators—a few refugee claimants, a few locals—took over. Most newcomers hear about the Facebook group in their first weeks in Montreal, while staying at one of the temporary shelters.
The group wasn’t just a depot for those seeking and those looking to donate—a little community seemed to be flourishing. Every day, posters shared elaborate, gushing thank yous, naming the people who’d given them goods; after one woman wrote that she wanted to learn how to knit clothes for her baby, a local started up a knitting group for newcomers. People offered advice about everything from food banks to cellphone providers. Despite the difficult circumstances that had brought the asylum seekers here and the stress of starting a life over in a new place, their posts were often good-humoured. And from the locals, there was no sign of the suspicion or xenophobia that manifested last summer in the comments section on news stories about the uptick in asylum seekers. Here, newcomers and Montrealers were greeting each other spontaneously and directly, exactly like I felt new neighbours should.
Tanatswa Mutoro*, a thirty-five-year-old woman originally from Zimbabwe, was living in Ibadan, Nigeria, with her husband Olamide Eze*, also thirty-five, and their two young children when a member of their extended family was kidnapped. It was the last straw for the family, who witnessed violence in the streets on a regular basis in Ibadan. They headed to the American embassy and were granted tourist visas; from there, they booked their tickets to JFK airport. While an American visa provided the quickest way out of Nigeria, Mutoro’s husband dreamed of one day moving to Canada. After they’d stayed in New Jersey for a few months, they decided to head north. They consulted YouTube videos posted by asylum seekers who’d previously made the same trek, receiving step-by-step instructions for how to cross into Canada at Roxham Road.
“We came with nothing,” Mutoro says. She heard about the YMCA Refugee Claimant Facebook group while staying at the YMCA shelter and, like Ogunlesi, she put out a call for help when it was time to set up the family’s apartment in Ahuntsic, a suburban neighbourhood about forty-five minutes from downtown Montreal by public transit. Montrealer Olivia Viveros responded.
“Olivia is someone who will respond even if she doesn’t have what you need right away,” says Mutoro. “The first time she came over, she asked to look around to see what we had and what we didn’t have.”
Viveros, a forty-four-year-old library clerkand mother to a ten-year-old boy, originally went onto the YMCA Refugee Claimant Donations group in September 2017 to donate kids’ clothing. Though she’d never volunteered with refugees before, she’s always been interested in doing so; she found herself becoming very involved over the course of the fall. “Every time I met a new family, I would feel obligated to help them out,” Viveros says. “I’d arrive with a snowsuit for one child and realize that there were three others in the family who needed snowsuits too. So I would look for three more suits.”
When Viveros ran out of stuff, she began turning to her family and friends to seek donations. Then, in November, after she’d tapped out her personal network, she began posting on Bazar de Villeray, a community buy-and-sell Facebook group with sixteen thousand members. She compiled lists of the things needed by newcomer families and matched this list against her list of promised donations. When she wasn’t taking her son to hockey practices, she was spending weekends and evenings picking up and delivering donations all over the city. For larger items, like mattresses or couches, she sometimes turned to other local volunteers on the Facebook group. Eventually, in February 2018, Viveros started a GoFundMe page to raise money to hire movers for furniture.
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 hairdryer, work boots for Eze and toys for the kids. Several months after Viveros’s initial visit, the two women are still in regular contact—in fact, they’re friends. “We speak almost every day,” says Mutoro. “She’s my best girl. When my son sees her, he runs into her arms like she is family.”
While Viveros was getting to know Mutoro through frequent visits, she also continued to help new families. She kept expecting the work to lighten up, but it never did, she says. She aimed to slow down during the holiday season, but as Christmas came and went, the never-ending to-do list started to weigh on her. “I would wake up at night and my mind would start racing, thinking of all the people waiting for me to come,” she says. “A friend asked me, ‘Why don’t you just donate to an organization that works to take care of refugees?’ It’s a good question. But I realized that I was meeting new families as I made these deliveries and I feel that the human contact is important for me and for them.” She estimates that over a period of six months, she has helped over thirty families.
When asked about what motivates her to do this work, Viveros finds it difficult to sum up. “It just feels really good to do something useful for someone, to know that I helped to make a difference in their lives, even if it’s just a little,” she says. “If their basic needs are fulfilled, they can concentrate on the other tasks. And if they are supported, they will integrate better. It would be nice if every new family could be matched up with a local family—for reference, for advice and for a kind of friendship, too.”
In November 2017, Rachel Shugart, a thirty-four-year-old high-school English teacher with two young children, volunteered to participate in a pilot project called Accueil Réfugiés Montréal. The project, which later changed its name to the Welcome Collective, was started by a group of volunteers who had been helping newcomer families on the YMCA Refugee Claimant Facebook group. The idea was to match Montrealers up with the most vulnerable of the refugee claimant families, including those with newborns or really young kids, or single-parent families; locals would be responsible for helping the family get their home set up and also to provide information and support.
Shugart and a friend decided to share the care of a family and were paired with a family of four who had a little girl and a newborn. “They had just gotten out of the hospital and were in an empty apartment,” she says. Like Viveros, Shugart found it fulfilling to help the family meet its immediate needs.
In January, Shugart initiated her own project in the YMCA Refugee Claimant Donations group: collecting school supplies for kids. She knew that many asylum seekers -recently arrived in Montreal would be sending their kids to school for the first time and they lacked the money to equip them with notebooks, crayons, backpacks and other basics. “I didn’t know what to buy even if we did have the money,” says Mutoro, who signed up for Shugart’s project. Her older son was about to start kindergarten.
After one post, Shugart took requests for supplies for about a hundred kids. From there, she posted on her personal Facebook page asking for donations. The post was shared more than a dozen times—it didn’t quite go viral, but the donations poured in nonetheless. Shugart got busy filling backpacks in her basement. Then she started recruiting those who wished to donate as volunteers. “I would encourage people who wanted to help to buy one lunchbox and fill one backpack and then I would give them the address of a family,” she says. Once the volunteers had met the families, Shugart explains, a relationship would often begin to develop. “Maybe they would go back, later on, with a blender or something,” she says, laughing. (Blenders are a hot item for Nigerians in the Facebook group, who use them frequently to blend vegetables for soup.)
Through this direct contact, volunteers can also be on hand to answer questions about day-to-day life in Quebec. “One time, a lady told me she needed winter boots,” she recalls. “I got to her house and I saw that she had some Pajars. I told her, ‘You have winter boots!’ She said, ‘But my feet are so cold.’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s negative twenty right now. You need to get some really warm socks.’” Asylum seekers, she says, also need help with more serious issues like how to handle a negligent landlord or an inaccurate hydro bill and where to find the closest food banks.
In helping the newcomers, Shugart believes that volunteers also learn a lot, particularly about what it’s like to live in poverty. “Many of the volunteers have no idea what it is like to struggle to pay the rent,” she says. “What do you do when you only have $20 for food and your kids are hungry? They get an education about this reality.” She feels that helping refugees can sensitize Montrealers to other issues related to marginality, such as the problem of gentrification. For the last six years, Shugart has herself been active in community organizing in her neighbourhood of Park Extension, a historical landing spot for immigrants and refugees in Montreal. Last summer, she says, a statue of an immigrant family was inaugurated to celebrate the history of the neighbourhood. “Ironically, it was the same summer that rents went up to the point that very few immigrant families are moving here anymore,” she says. “There are still some low-income families here in the neighbourhood, but I’d say they’re disappearing pretty fast due to rent increases.” While Park Extension is ideal for immigrants in terms of its accessibility via public transportation and also because of the diverse types of businesses there (including a well-known African grocery store), Shugart says that none of the Nigerian asylum seekers she has met are settling there; instead, they are moving way out to suburbs like Lasalle and Pierrefonds, because that is where the more affordable housing is.
After the backpack project was underway, the Welcome Collective recruited Shugart to become a part-time coordinator—their first employee. As of March, the group had acquired status as a non-profit organization and they had received enough funding through private donations to operate for a three-month period. Each week, Shugart receives a list from a YMCA social worker of three newly arrived families deemed particularly vulnerable and she matches them with a local group of volunteers. The Welcome Collective now owns a cargo van; each week, Shugart helps the volunteers pick up donated furniture and household items and deliver them. She hopes that in the future, as the collective gets more established, a settled refugee can take over her position.
In early 2017, Quebec’s Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion suspended the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, citing a major backlog of applications. The program had been opened up to larger numbers between 2015 and 2016 as part of Justin Trudeau’s commitment to bring twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees to Canada. During this time, the program was highly solicited—often by people looking to sponsor a family member, but also by community organizations and groups of citizens wanting to help a refugee resettle in Canada. Shugart says that some people who have expressed interest in volunteering with the Welcome Collective are among those who applied to sponsor a Syrian refugee, but have not yet had the chance to welcome one.
In February, Viveros organized a first meeting of locals who’d become active, mostly working independently, in the YMCA Facebook group. Shugart was among the fifteen or so people who attended. After brainstorming, the volunteers decided to coordinate their work more, creating their own Facebook group to share ideas and to collaborate on pick-ups and drop-offs. Shugart hopes that, eventually, the Welcome Collective will grow. By working as a team, within the Collective’s model of pairing groups of volunteers with families, she thinks individual volunteers won’t burn out by taking on too much on their own.
A paper by Ana Sofia Hibon, the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness 2017 fellow, studies Montreal and outlines practises that foster the integration of refugees; among them, she cites twinning programs (in which refugees are matched up with locals) as an effective strategy for integration because they foster interculturalism—a two-way relationship in which both sides learn from the other. More than just a strategy to avoid burnout, Viveros and Shugart’s efforts mirror best practices for the mutually beneficial integration of newcomers to Montreal.
As I watched the steady, sometimes overwhelming stream of requests posted to the Facebook group’s wall over the winter, I noticed that some requests were going unanswered. People were posting repeatedly, asking for the same items. Despite the group’s devoted volunteers, there were only so many of them and they couldn’t possibly reach everybody. And after speaking with several refugee claimants, I realized that not everyone has unlimited access to the internet, so some are faster at claiming items than others. Also, some people are simply not comfortable asking for help. I wondered how many asylum seekers were not getting that extra boost.
In April of this year, remarking that the number of asylum seekers crossing at Roxham Road was triple that of 2017, Quebec’s immigration minister, David Heurtel, announced his wish to cap the number of asylum seekers Quebec would take into its care. Heurtel said that they are expecting up to four hundred crossings per day this summer and Quebec does not have the resources to handle the influx. He said they have only 1,850 spots in the city’s temporary shelters and 15 percent of those need to be reserved for asylum seekers who enter the country regularly. While the province had already requested $146 million from the federal government to assist in covering some of the costs from sheltering asylum seekers in 2017, Heurtel’s recent announcement was a call to Ottawa to step in and do more to handle this year’s arrival of refugee claimants. The provincial government suggested sending asylum seekers who do not wish to stay in Quebec directly to other parts of the country and, for those staying in the province, assessing their work skills and sending some to regions of Quebec where there are labour shortages.
In February of 2017, the City of Montreal declared itself a “Sanctuary City”—meaning a space where undocumented migrants do not 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 Roundtable of Services for Refugees and Immigrants, a group of about a hundred -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 the federal governments need to step up their game when it comes to addressing asylum seekers’ needs. Echoing the experience the Ogulensis had, Bourdeau says that the initial welfare cheque they receive is not enough to set up their new life in Quebec; she also has concerns about what kind of housing is available to asylum seekers. “It’s getting harderand harder to find housing that is affordable and clean,” she tells me in French. “There’s not much to choose from.”
Though the province’s immigration ministry allotted additional funding this year towards a program that helps asylum seekers find housing—a dozen different community organizations visit the shelters to give information sessions in several different languages—Adeseewa and Mutoro, like many others, report it was a struggle to find an apartment. Most landlords require a credit check and, newly arrived in Canada, neither of them had credit. As they looked for housing, Adeseewa’s and Mutoro’s husbands both hit the pavement, taking down numbers from handwritten vacancy signs and calling landlords. While this is another area where the YMCA Facebook group tries to help—people post regularly about vacancies in their own buildings when their landlords are known to accept refugees—it is a harder problem for locals to help solve. (Viveros reports that she visited one single mother in an apartment that had visible mould growing on the walls. Stressed about finding a place and not aware of her rights, the woman had signed the lease before seeing the apartment.)
Health care, Bourdeau says, is another area where there is a gap in services for refugee claimants. Although they have basic health coverage under the Interim Federal Health Program, accessing that care 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 who openly accept refugee claimants,” Bourdeau says. “It’s not nearly sufficient to cover the number of refugee claimants that 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.”
When the Ogunlesis arrived at the YMCA shelter in December, Adeesewa was well into her third trimester, and she could see an -on-site nurse. The nurse told her to call 911 when her labour started. Once they’d settled into their new apartment, she looked for -local hospitals online and when her contractions began, she walked through the doors of the emergency room at St. Mary’s Hospital. But things didn’t go smoothly—she was in labour for three days, without dilating. When it started to look like she would need an emergency caesarian, the staff looked uncertain about what to do. “There was a nurse who said ‘I don’t think she is covered,’” Adeesewa says.
While her contractions continued, a debate ensued. “The doctor was confused, so she went to ask at the office. And she came back and says yes, they would do it.” After this initial stress, things went relatively well. However, upon release, things again became complicated. The doctor told her to come back for a six-week checkup and Adeesewa tried to comply. “When I called to make an appointment at around four weeks, the -secretary says I cannot see the doctor unless I pay $80,” Adeesewa explains. “I told them, ‘I’m a refugee, I’m not working and I don’t have the money.’ She says I was only covered for the delivery, nothing else.” Four months after the birth of her daughter, Adeesewa still has some pain, but has not yet seen a doctor herself. She was able, however, to find a paediatrician for Aria from a list that the hospital provided.
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 refugee claimant’s work permit application—both non-profits and government offices—no organizations receive any special funding for this service. “It’s not easy for a person who has passed through several countries to have all their papers in order,” Bourdeau says. “-Often, these people are a bit overwhelmed and they’re missing something. But even if they send the application in and everything is done correctly, it takes four weeks. During those four weeks, they can’t work.” Morever, Bourdeau says, there’s no funding devoted to helping asylum seekers find employment. “There are a few who will help refugee claimants,” she says, “but it is 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. In March, the CBC reported that a Haitian asylum seeker named Paulo* had seriously injured his hand on a meat slicer while working for Sherrington Meats, a factory located just outside Montreal. While he’d not yet received his work permit, a temp agency recruited him at a metro station, falsely telling him he could work while he waited for the permit and providing a false name and social insurance number to Sherrington Meats. Now healing from his injury, Paulo may not be eligible for any benefits under Quebec’s occupational health and safety board.
When it comes to daycare, both private and subsidized, asylum seekers with work permits are in theory supposed to have access. However, on the YMCA Facebook group, people have reported that they’ve been refused; some daycares hesitate to take their children for fear of not being reimbursed.
While volunteers and Facebook groups can do their part to help newcomers settle in—they can even assist, at times, with finding apartments or food banks—they won’t ever be able to fill all the gaps. That would take commitments from the federal immigration ministry to reduce case processing delays and from all levels of government to coordinate better to increase access to services. Hibon makes the point that, although Quebecers have historically demonstrated a high level of civic engagement in response to refugees’ needs, the most important role concerned citizens can play is to hold the government accountable for these gaps.
The provincial government’s idea to send asylum seekers directly to other regions of Quebec and Canada could ease the immediate pressure on services in Montreal, but unless the different levels of government recognize that securing decent housing, furnishing a home, finding work, getting kids set up for school and accessing daycare and adequate healthcare are urgent matters requiring further support, asylum seekers will only continue to face similar challenges elsewhere.
The suspension of the Safe Third Country agreement, as called for by the Canadian Council for Refugees and the federal NDP, would eliminate the need to cross at unofficial points like Roxham Road. That would likely lead to a further increase in asylum claims, though they would be distributed more evenly across the country and its ports of entry. The details of the Canadian government’s talks with the US Department of Homeland Security remain unknown, but a Reuters report from late April indicated that the government may be leaning in the other direction, aiming to further restrict asylum seekers from the US crossing into Canada, more in line with the Conservative suggestion. To many, especially those working with the refugee claimants, this kind of crackdown would be more troubling than grappling with growing numbers. It would look like a change in policy from the welcome Canada offered to Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2017—and it would belie contradictions between Trudeau’s rhetoric (such as that famous tweet) and the Liberal government’s actions.
After all, the number of refugees Canada accepts, in general, is a small drop in the bucket. The UNHCR reports that due to high levels of conflict, 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide in 2016—a seven-decade high. Of those, 84 percent remained in developing or middle-income countries. “The majority of these people are in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran, Uganda and Kenya,” says Beuze. “That’s where the real crisis is.” One in five people living in Lebanon—where a significant number of people don’t have continuous access to potable water or electricity—is a refugee, Beuze adds. As a stable, rich nation, Canada could—if we chose to—welcome a much larger number of refugees than we currently are.
Four months after their arrival, Mutoro’s family, like Adeesewa’s, are doing their best to put down roots. Her eldest boy is now in kindergarten; he enjoys it even though he’s the only kid in his class who doesn’t yet speak French. (When Mutoro receives French--language emails from her son’s school, she asks Viveros to translate them for her.) Eze, like Adeesewa’s husband, secured a job within a few months of arriving in Montreal and is working in the cold room of a dairy. The hours are long, as he has no official shift—he arrives in the morning and is often expected to stay until 11 or 12 at night. He’s keeping his eyes out for other opportunities.
For now, having an income is still relatively new and Mutoro and Eze continue to rely on food banks for many of their groceries. Mutoro has started French courses at a non-profit organization that helps new immigrants; the organization has part-time childcare, so she can take her two-year-old with her. She is also in the process of starting a home-based business as a hair and makeup stylist. She advertises on Kijiji as well as the YMCA Facebook group and has already started serving clients. Locals from the Facebook group, including Viveros, have helped her get set up with supplies like brushes and makeup. Eventually, she’d like to rent a chair in a salon.
When Mutoro is out and about, she sometimes sees newcomers who look like they could use some help—particularly -mothers with babies. “I’ll say, ‘Why are you not wearing warm clothes? It’s so cold,’” she explains. “Then I ask them if they know about the Facebook group. Sometimes they say no. Sometimes they say they asked for help on there, but did not get it. So, I will ask Olivia on their behalf. Or if something is offered on the group, I will claim it on their behalf and pick it up for them.”
Through word of mouth and social media, the YMCA Refugee Claimant Facebook group continues to grow, albeit chaotically and not without a few hitches. The transport of goods, especially large items, is an ongoing problem. Some Montrealers, new to the group, declare items “for pick-up only” without realizing just how hard that may be for a new family that doesn’t yet have a car or many friends to help. Newcomers who don’t yet know their way around the island are often quick to claim an item before realizing just how far it is from Pierrefonds to the Plateau. But thanks to the group, the Ogunlesis’ home is furnished, her baby is dressed and she and her husband are now 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.”
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.