Loading articles...

Asylum seekers wait for chance to come to Canada at Buffalo refugee centre

Last Updated Feb 6, 2017 at 9:29 am EST

The list goes up every weekday just before noon.

Tentatively, all 150 residents of Buffalo’s Vive La Casa shelter filter in to look at the bulletin board in the main lobby, their eyes nervously scanning for their name, like someone waiting for access to a high school club or sports team.

Yet so much more is at stake: the chance at new life in Canada.

On this cold February morning, a few weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, only two names are on the list. A man from Haiti. Another from Pakistan.

For the lucky two, it means they have an appointment with Canadian immigration officers the very next morning. They are to pack their bags and take a taxi to the border where they will get a chance to plead their case that they should be allowed to stay as a refugee claimant.

Asylum-seekers staying at the Vive La Casa shelter in Buffalo, N.Y., check to see whether they have been scheduled for an interview with Canadian immigration officials the following day. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

Bernardo Moyse’s name did not make the list.

“I’ve been running all my life,” Moyse told CityNews. “Came to the States from Haiti, did the asylum and they denied it. Went back to Canada, the same thing … It’s crazy.”

Moyse, 33, is at the beginning of what he hopes to be the end of his 12-year journey for a permanent home. He left Haiti in 2005, fleeing the violence and lawlessness of Port-au-Prince, leaving behind his father and brother. He’s been living illegally in Florida ever since.

One week ago, he boarded a bus in West Palm Beach and made the two-day journey to Buffalo, New York, arriving at 2 a.m. His sister living in Montreal had told him about Vive La Casa.

He’s been living there ever since, hoping to finally gain legal entry as an asylum seeker to Canada.

“My mom she wanted us to be here, to have a better life,” Moyse said.

La Casa, run by the Jericho Road Community Health Center, is a shelter for refugees in Buffalo, New York. Each year, roughly 2,000 people live in what was once a Catholic elementary school, waiting to apply for political asylum in either the United States or Canada.

Anna Ireland, the chief program officer at Jericho, says the vast majority, more than 90 per cent, will apply to make their home in Canada.

“The Canadian regulations require that you have family members, they hear immigration cases a lot faster, so people get through the system a lot faster,” Ireland said.

The average wait in Buffalo for asylum cases to be heard is two to three years. In comparison, Canada’s wait is two to three months.

buffalo refugees 1

The Trump effect

La Casa clients come from all over the world, including Central and South America and Africa. A few hail from the seven Muslim-majority countries named in U.S. president Donald Trump’s travel ban.

“We’ve definitely seen a slow, steady increase in volume,” Ireland says of clients coming through La Casa’s doors in the last six months. “People who have been living in the United States longer are now seeking to go to Canada.”

Ireland says no matter their origin, there’s a growing sense from clients of unease and a feeling they’re no longer welcome in America. She says there’s been a dramatic spike in calls of people looking for information on how to seek asylum in Canada.

“I think people are questioning a lot,” Ireland says. “They’re scared.”

The average stay at La Casa is two to three weeks. One resident, however, has been here for three years, caught in a cycle of denied claims and appeals.

A growing number of residents have been deported from Canada because their applications were denied. They often choose to stay at La Casa for 90 days, where they can reapply for asylum.

Nancy, a young mother from Burundi, was denied as an asylum seeker at the Canadian border in October while nine months pregnant. A week later she gave birth to her daughter, Fanny. The infant’s only home has been La Casa. When asked what it’s like raising an infant at the shelter, Nancy shrugs.

“Sometimes it’s good,” she says.

buffalo refugees 4

Living Together

The old, creaky school has been converted to contain living quarters with bunk beds, a large commercial kitchen, a mess hall and a health and legal clinic.

Upon registration at La Casa, residents sit down with legal staff, who help them prepare their case and guide them on what forms and documentation are needed to make a successful claim at the border. In 2015, more than 90 per cent were allowed entry in Canada to make their claim.

“You actually have people who are lawyers and doctors who are claiming asylum,” Ireland said. “It’s hard, but these stories need to be heard, and the effects of our government’s policy and your government’s policy, this is where it hits the road. This is where it matters.”

A poster hangs in the legal clinic next to where Ireland is standing.

It shows hundreds of refugees with their arms outstretched on a boat.

In the top left, the caption reads: “The only thing stronger than fear is hope.”

buffalo refugees 3