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3/13: The Underground Railroad for Refugees (2)
Released 27 March 2017  By Jake Halpern – The New Yoker

The Underground Railroad for Refugees

(....Continued from Part One)

Finally, in 2014, Tita’s family, including an uncle who lived in Germany, helped her raise fifteen thousand dollars. With the bulk of the money, she hired a human trafficker. Posing as the trafficker’s wife, she flew with him to Dubai, then to Brazil—she wasn’t sure which city. They continued on to Mexico City, and, finally, to Tijuana, where she presented herself at the U.S. border and asked for asylum. She had no passport, no phone, and no credit cards or bank account—just nine hundred dollars in cash. After spending a month at a federal detention facility, Tita was released on parole and granted a temporary visa. She went to San Diego, where she stayed with a group of Eritreans she had met through contacts in the Pentecostal church. They told her about Vive. She flew to New York City, then on to Buffalo, and arrived at Vive with just three hundred dollars.

At Vive, Tita met with Jake Steinmetz and told him about her husband and son. They were still living in Edmonton but had just flown to Toronto, planning to meet her at the nearest border crossing, in Fort Erie, Ontario.

Steinmetz explained Canada’s asylum process. Until the end of 2004, anyone could request asylum at a border crossing, but that year Canada and the U.S. began enforcing a new treaty, the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires all refugees to seek asylum in the first country they enter. The stated purpose of the treaty is “promoting the orderly handling of asylum applications.” The subtext is this: many applicants were seeking asylum in both countries, which was seen as an unnecessary drain on the countries’ resources. The treaty has made migrating from the U.S. to Canada much more difficult. It does make exceptions for several categories of people, including unaccompanied minors and people with an “anchor relative”—an immediate-family member—living in the destination country. Tita therefore could cross the border openly, unlike some Vive residents, but upon arrival she needed to prove that Ya and Eli were her husband and son.

This was a problem. She was not legally married to Ya, and Eli’s birth certificate had only her name on it, not Ya’s. If she was turned back at the border, she might be deported to Eritrea. “It’s a high-risk case,” Steinmetz told her. Because Ya and Eli would be meeting her at the border, officials could interview them, but that presented its own dangers. “It would be one thing if Eli were twelve years old, and you had only been separated for two years, but he is so young,” Steinmetz said. “I don’t know if he can answer their questions.” And what if he didn’t seem to recognize her?

“I have Skyped with him recently,” Tita said, hopefully. “Eli should recognize me.”

Another option was for Tita to present the results of a DNA test, but that would cost at least a thousand dollars—far more than she could afford. She pursed her lips, overwhelmed. After years of separation, she was just an hour’s drive away from her son. Steinmetz said that she didn’t have to make any decisions immediately. She could stay at Vive while she considered her options.

Vive residents must attend weekly “house meetings” in the basement cafeteria, which has fluorescent lights that emit a sickly glow. On one wall is a mural of a horse running through a mountain pasture; another depicts a Canadian flag. At the meeting I attended, dozens of people crammed together on plastic chairs: Muslim women in hijabs, African men in dashikis, skinny teens in threadbare T-shirts. In an adjoining hall, a few children hollered and played soccer.

“This is your home for now,” Rose, the house manager, a Ugandan native who has permanent residency in the U.S., explained. She slowly enunciated each word, then waited as residents whispered translations to their neighbors. “Everybody is supposed to get up and make their bed,” Rose continued. “Then you mop with soap, bleach, and hot water, so we don’t get cockroaches.” She went on, “All the parents with children—if they are under the age of fourteen, they must be in bed by 9 p.m. For adults, by 11 p.m. you must be in bed.”

The curfew is intended to keep the house as quiet and orderly as possible. Many of the residents are distraught, and feelings of dislocation can easily be transformed into disruptive behavior. The staff worries especially about mothers, like Tita, who have been separated from their children. After the house meeting, several staff members convened to discuss a woman who had left her young daughter behind in Congo. Clearly overcome by stress, the woman had punched another resident in the face. One staff member, a nun named Sister Beth Niederpruem, had been meeting with the woman, consoling her and simply letting her talk. Like many refugees from Congo, the woman had been tortured. Sister Beth added, “Women like this, they don’t know where their children are. Are they safe or being threatened? Who knows? So to function in a normal way—whatever normal may be—is very difficult.” Sister Beth kept the woman busy, so that she didn’t become consumed by sorrow. She had been put in charge of one of the teams that cooked meals for the residents. This helped, but apparently not enough. “Maybe she just got frustrated while peeling potatoes,” Sister Beth said. “It’s always really about something else.”

The Congolese woman confided that she was terrified of being turned back at the border and ending up in an American prison. Her fear was not irrational. Men who are turned back at the border are often sent to a federal detention facility in Batavia, New York, that is relatively comfortable. There is no equivalent facility for women in the area, so they are often sent to county jails. Every resident at Vive seemed to know stories of women who had been imprisoned in the U.S. I met a woman from Angola who had spent a month at a county jail, among the general population, after being detained on the U.S. side of the border. “I was shaking so much I could barely hold a pen,” she told me. “God left me.” After she was paroled, she returned to Vive.

Most residents stay at the schoolhouse for three to four weeks. But the Congolese woman was so paralyzed by indecision that she had remained at Vive for ten months. At any given time, there are up to three dozen “long-termers.” On one of my visits, I met a woman from Nigeria in her mid-forties, who had fled with her husband and two sons from the terrorist group Boko Haram, after some of its members destroyed their home and tried to kill her husband. She hoped to live in Canada one day, but she had breast cancer, and was so sick that the staff at Vive feared she was too frail to travel any farther. A room next to the nurse’s office had been cleared out and offered to the family.

Vive tries to keep the long-termers in living quarters separate from those of transient residents, because it can be dispiriting for them to be reminded that they have failed to realize their dream. I visited one former classroom, crowded with twenty or so beds, where male long-termers slept. A young man from Zimbabwe named Martial told me that so many of his roommates suffered from bad dreams that, in the middle of the night, the room became a cacophony of anguished voices. Martial had been at Vive for roughly four months, and he told me that he sometimes fell into a depressed trance: “Your mind just gets whisked away and physically you will be at Vive, but mentally you are elsewhere. Somebody might pat you on the shoulder and you wouldn’t feel it. Then, when he pats you for the second time, you will go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, man.’ ”

One day, I met a young man from Rwanda named Allan. In 2004, a decade after the genocide against the Tutsi, Allan’s father testified against a man who had committed war crimes. In retaliation, Allan was kidnapped and tortured by supporters of the accused man. In 2009, he escaped to the U.S., on a student visa. He eventually found his way to Vive. Lacking an anchor relative in Canada, he had created a quiet life for himself in Buffalo. He made a small income by working security at Vive, steaming the suitcases of all newcomers (to eliminate bedbugs), and running what he called a “shopping mall”—donated clothing that residents could sift through and have free of charge. The Congolese residents had a knack for finding the best items, he said: “The Congo guys are very stylish.”

Steinmetz told me that waiting for a U.S. asylum verdict is “torturous.” In Canada, asylum seekers generally get a hearing within sixty days. They are almost never held in detention.

At one point, at Vive, I met a young Pakistani couple. The husband was a journalist, and they had fled Pakistan after he was beaten and received death threats. His wife was eight months pregnant, and they were determined to head north, so that the child could be born in Canada. It was not clear that they would make it in time. “Too many problems,” the man said. His wife looked tired and flushed. The nurse promised to find an electric fan that they could place by her bed. “What will I do?” the man said quietly, as if to himself.

Every afternoon, the atmosphere of anticipation at Vive reached a peak when a staff member posted a sign in the front hallway, listing residents with anchor relatives who had an appointment in Canada the next day. A staff member named Mariah Walker schedules these appointments with the Canadian government’s refugee-processing unit, and she maintains a good relationship with U.S. border officials. One day after the list was posted, I spoke with a refugee from Sudan, named Yousif, whose name wasn’t on the list, and who was there with his wife and two children. He had a brother living in Canada. When I told him that he seemed remarkably composed, he grabbed me by the hands, squeezing my palms with clammy fingers. “Does this feel calm?” he asked, holding my gaze.

Yousif’s daughter showed us a coloring book that she was working on. After she skipped away, he told me that in Sudan his wife had been detained by the police and physically assaulted, which caused her to have a miscarriage. Now he worried that, if his family got turned back at the border, he would be detained in a U.S. prison and separated from his wife and children.

(Continued Part Three...)


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