Northern Light

A Syrian Refugee Flees America
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Syrian refugees arriving in Ontario / CNS photo
Syrian refugees arriving in Ontario / CNS photo

Roxham Road is a remote stretch of pavement in upstate New York that has seen an unusually large number of travelers recently. The short byway leads to Canada, and the promise of asylum for refugees from all over the world who’ve given up on finding it in the United States. This is where they come to sneak across the border, fleeing the country they’d hoped to call home for one more willing to help them.

My friend Amina made the walk up Roxham Road last November, her four-year-old daughter Joudi in tow. Their last stop before leaving the United States behind was a run-down Days Inn thirty miles from the border, in Plattsburgh, New York, the night before. But the difficult journey had actually begun three years earlier and thousands of miles away, when they fled the civil war in Syria. It included cancellation of Amina’s travel visa upon her arrival in the United States, several months in a U.S. detention center, relocation to Boston, multiple postponements of her asylum hearing, and more than two years of bureaucratic delay that prevented her from acquiring a work permit and finding a job.

Then, on November 8, came the election of Donald Trump. Amina realized she needed to do something. She emailed me: “I’ve decided to sneak into Canada. Can you help me?”

 

I had gotten to know Amina and Joudi (not their real names) through a student of mine in Boston. Over time I learned their story: That Amina had met her husband in Damascus, where they both worked as bank tellers before the war; that he was Druze and she was Sunni Muslim, so he had to convert—at least on paper—for their marriage to be legal. Neither cared much about politics or religion, and when their apartment was destroyed by a bomb one day, they had no idea whose planes had done it, or why, only that they’d lost everything they owned.

Then it happened again. When their new home was bombed, Amina was terrified, particularly for their daughter, now a year old. How could a mother continue to expose her child to such danger? How could she keep her daughter from joining the thousands of Syrian children being killed by bombs? And so she devised a plan. She would apply for a tourist visa to the United States and tell the consular officer that she wanted to take her daughter to Disneyland. Amina had some European stamps in her passport, from family trips to Spain and France. She was an educated woman who spoke excellent English, and she had a husband who was staying behind in Damascus.

She got the visa, but that didn’t guarantee an easy trip. Lufthansa Airlines refused to let her board for “security reasons.” That forced her to purchase another ticket, this on a Saudi airline. On arrival in Philadelphia, after a full day of travel with an exhausted toddler, she was confronted at customs. The official, skeptical of all of her luggage and that last-minute purchase of a different plane ticket, cancelled her visa. He told her she would have to turn around and go back immediately. Amina, undaunted, said, “In that case, I am going to request asylum.”

Amina and her daughter walked up Roxham Road, then, without looking back, they were in Canada

It is not unusual for individuals to request asylum on arrival in the United States. Often, they’re placed in immigration detention until they get a court date. But for families, it’s different. There are only three detention centers in the nation for families who are seeking asylum. Two are in Texas. The other is the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. This is where Amina and her daughter were sent. Between the necessary paperwork and the bus ride, twelve hours passed before they got there. It was five-thirty in the morning. More than thirty-six hours had gone by since they’d last been in a bed. When they were taken to a room, they finally lay down, exhausted. But they were awakened almost immediately; it was time for breakfast, and according to the detention center’s rules, everyone had to go to the cafeteria when meals were served.

Sleep deprivation would become a fact of life for Amina in the four months she and Joudi spent at Berks County. Guards woke her up at fifteen-minute intervals every night for “bed check,” and while Joudi might not stir during these disruptions, Amina would remain awake afterward. This type of treatment is why family detention centers have come under legal fire and public pressure. Reports show that the type of detention Amina and people like her experience causes PSTD and other psychological problems, while detainees also are at far higher risk of clinical depression. The indefinite length of detention appears to cause particular stress, leading to hunger strikes and attempted suicides.

Some of the other Berks detainees were eventually released to families. When Amina’s turn came, she and Joudi had no place to go. But a group of non-profit organizations was launching a program to help support those released from detention centers. Through this program Amina and Joudi were eventually able to go to Boston, living an apartment paid for by Catholic Charities. This brought some semblance of routine and stability. Finally, Amina could be in regular contact with her husband, who was still working in Damascus; finally, she could let her daughter see her father’s face on the screen of the phone. But she had no work papers, no income other than what Catholic Charities provided, and no one to watch Joudi even if she wanted a job off the books.

Amina had never been without work before, and she had far too much energy to sit at home, even during a harsh Boston winter. So she filled her days with trips to the public library and other free activities she could do with her daughter. In addition to her native Arabic, Joudi had picked up English and some Spanish in the detention center, and she charmed everyone she met. Joudi even came along with Amina one day to a lecture about the Syrian war, held at Boston College. And that’s where Amina told her story to my student, who then introduced Amina to me.

 

The story of bureaucratic disarray Amina relayed might not surprise people familiar with our immigration system. While Trump’s executive orders on immigrants and refugees marked a radically new level of injustice, they in some ways also reflect the existing dynamic. The United States admits very few refugees compared to other developed countries. Last year, Sweden was accepting as many asylum seekers in a week as the United States accepts in a year, even though Sweden is a far smaller nation with far fewer people. The U.S. refugee policy rarely seems to reflect any sense of moral responsibility for the messes the country has created, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. And a lack of adequate funding for our immigration authorities and the judicial system ensures that interminable delay and dysfunction are the norm. If Amina were granted asylum in the United States, she would be legally entitled to bring her husband to America. But even then it might have taken a decade for him to actually be granted a visa, and by that time his daughter would be a teenager.

Amina had done what any good mother would do: sought a safe haven for her child. She had come to the United States fluent in English and ready to work, energetic and with lots to offer. In theory, she was entitled to temporary protected status and a work permit soon after arrival. Yet even after two years, she still hadn’t received a work permit. Her asylum case had been first denied, and then the appeal was repeatedly postponed. When the asylum judge in Boston postponed it yet again, indefinitely this time, she had had her fill. Trump’s election confirmed her decision: she would go to Canada.

Legally, Amina was supposed to remain in the United States until she completely exhausted her asylum claim; only then would she be entitled to seek refuge in Canada, according to the Safe Third Country agreement between the two nations. (Recently, some Canadians have been calling upon their government to withdraw from this agreement, saying that the United States can no longer be regarded as a safe haven for asylum seekers.) Given all she’d been through, though, Amina did not want to wait any longer. She got in touch with me to say she would take a bus up to the border. I told her not to, and that I and a friend would drive her instead.

Donald Trump signing his revised travel ban in March 2017 / CNS photo

Amina seemed calm as we headed out of Massachusetts and up through Vermont toward northern New York. She was promising Joudi an adventure, a hike in the woods, maybe even a chance to build a snowman. But in fact she and I were both nervous. Neither of us was comfortable with skirting the law like this. The Plattsburgh Days Inn offered little respite. There was a large family across the hall, five adults and ten children crammed into a single room. The noise made it impossible to rest, and Amina—sadly accustomed to lost sleep—gave up hope of getting any. Instead, she went about loading a backpack for the next morning: extra gloves and hats, snacks for her daughter, a change of clothes, hand-warmers, and a thick stack of legal papers from her asylum case in the United States. At the last minute, she even tucked in the picture book I had given Joudi as a birthday present.

Joudi—now four years old—was sleeping peacefully. We suggested slipping a piece of paper into her coat pocket, with names and phone numbers on it, in case mother and daughter somehow became separated. Amina’s heart stopped at the thought. But she did it.

 

The next morning dawned bright and cold. At least there wasn’t any snow yet. Amina and Joudi bundled up, and together we drove away from the Days Inn. We went most of the thirty miles toward the border, stopping at last about a hundred yards away from it. My friend and I watched as they got out of the car. There was no fence, just a large camera on a post. And so they walked down Roxham Road, passing a large sleepy-looking horse, a black dog on a chain, a few trailer homes. Then, suddenly, without looking back, they were in Canada.

Not wanting to face questions from U.S. border patrol agents, we got out of there fast and headed toward Montreal, where we’d arranged to leave Amina’s suitcases with another friend. Somehow, we thought, she would get them. Then we headed home to Boston, to wait and to wonder.

Yet it was only a few hours later when we heard from Amina. “I’m at the police station in Canada,” she texted. “It has been a great experience.”

A great experience? Yes, Amina reported; it had all been very easy. The Canadian border police had picked them up within minutes. Numerous other families had crossed in the same spot that week, the Mounties said. And when Amina arrived at the police station, she was surprised to see the very same large family that had kept us up all night at the Days Inn: They too had fled the United States for asylum in Canada.

The police were polite, taking down information for Amina’s asylum claim and releasing her and Joudi to spend the night in a family shelter. The next morning, my Montreal friend picked them up, gave Amina her luggage, and got them on a bus to Toronto, where they would stay with friends.

Amina soon had her own apartment. She sent me a picture of herself and Joudi enjoying downtown Toronto in the snow. And then, in January, she sent me a triumphant message: “My asylum case has been approved!” It had taken less than two months. 

I don’t know when I’ll get to see Amina and Joudi again. When and if I do, it would have to be in Toronto, since they wouldn’t be permitted to enter the United States. But Amina has no desire to come back anyway. It is a loss for our country: Amina is an educated woman, and her delightful, multilingual daughter will grow up to contribute a great deal to Canada. And, inshallah, her husband will be able to join her from Syria within the next year. She wrote me recently that she has kept a souvenir of her time in the United States– the slip of paper with phone numbers that Joudi carried across the border in her coat pocket. “It is still with me,” Amina wrote. “I will keep it forever.”

Why is it that sometimes when we encounter a person in need, we are compelled to respond, and other times we say, “Wow, that’s too bad,” and walk away? Why sometimes do we jump instead to blaming those who are in need, as if their very neediness gives us the authority to judge? In Canada, the Trudeau government is speeding up asylum-case processing. Many private citizens in Canada have been sponsoring Syrian refugees out of their own funds, and welcoming them when they arrive. I know many of my fellow Americans would be willing do the same. But our government isn’t giving us the chance.

Laurie Johnston is Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College and a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio.

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