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.”