Two women wearing head coverings panhandle on the side of the highway. Another woman with a headscarf asks for spare change from passersby on a downtown street. Still another begs at the crossroads at the heart of Toronto, Dundas Square.
It is how these women are appealing for money that sets them apart from the many others trying to survive on Toronto’s streets: they say they are refugees.
It’s a claim that pulls on the heartstrings of many Canadians, especially those who have opened their homes and communities to Syrian refugees. More than 50,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since 2015. They are among the thousands of refugees from across the globe who come to this country every year.
Passersby who saw the women asking for help wanted to know: What brought them to our streets, and have some refugees slipped through the city’s social safety net? We hit the road in search of answers and understanding, and we spoke to several woman who described themselves as refugees panhandling across the GTA.
We first spoke with one woman outside of the old Maple Leaf Gardens at Carlton and Church streets. She said she was Bosnian, has three kids and had been here three months. Two women panhandling in Ajax told us they were Bosnian, though one first told us she was Syrian.
Then we spoke with two other women panhandling along Lakeshore Road, near Etobicoke. They too held signs saying they had three children, they too claimed to be here for three months, though they said they were from Romania.
One day of searching. Five women, all with similar stories. Three claiming they were Bosnian, two from Romania.
The next day, we revisited the first woman we spoke to outside of the Gardens. This time, when I asked where she was from, she admitted she was from Romania. I asked if she was Roma, she nodded her head and said, “Yes. Roma, Gypsy.”
A few minutes later we discovered yet another woman at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas. Her English, like everyone we spoke with, was broken, but she too confirmed she was from Romania and that she was Roma.
CityNews could not independently confirm each woman’s nationality. However, Citizenship and Immigration Canada confirms that in all of 2017, country-wide, there were only two asylum claims from Bosnia, and only one was accepted.
A possible reason for the nationality confusion is that these women identify as Roma – a stateless ethnic group that faces discrimination across much of central, eastern and southeastern Europe.
We showed video of our interactions with the women to Paul St. Clair, an immigration counsellor with Culture Link. St. Clair has helped more than 1,000 Roma secure refugee status in Canada over the last 20 years. He believes the women are indeed Roma.
Before anyone passes judgement on these women, who may or may not have chosen to share their true identities, St. Clair believes it’s vital to understand the lives many Roma are fleeing in Europe.
“They are considered a plague, they are considered dirt, they are considered not even human,” says St. Clair.
He says that in Romania, Roma aren’t let into state schools, or are made to attend segregated ones. They aren’t hired for jobs, even if they’re qualified, they’re also refused healthcare and live in substandard conditions, “and in some cases have had their homes burned down by racists.”
A largely nomadic people, the Romani, or Roma, have roots that can be traced back to India and Pakistan. Romanian census information indicates that about 500,000 Roma call Romania home, though that number is believed to be much higher – into the millions.
It is possible that the women we spoke to have been in the GTA for three months, as they say. In December, the federal government announced that citizens of Romania no longer need a visa to come to Canada for stays of up to six months. St. Clair believes that the women we spoke with could have come in under the new policy. He says some may be falling back on what they had to do to survive back home.
“That’s what everyone does when they are new in Canada, they try and rely on what they know and what they did before,” he explains. “So it can take a while for them to get use to Canadian conditions.”
Since 2015, the government has approved about 70 per cent of Roma refugee claimants in Ontario, estimates Ibrahim Absiye, executive director of Culture Link. The organization is the first stop for many immigrants and refugees who arrive in Toronto. That figure is up from a 20 to 30 per cent acceptance rate as recently as 2013. He says that’s a good thing.
Absiye and his staff say many Roma refugees who go through the centre are eager to find work. Some have found work in construction, truck driving and agriculture, though Absiye says it’s mostly men who are employed. As for women, one panhandler we spoke to, who said her name is Anna, told us she’s staying in a shelter – a common situation for many Toronto refugees.
Last year, nearly 900 refugee claimants from a variety of countries used the city’s emergency shelter beds on an average night. This year that number has increased to an average of almost 2,000 refugee claimants a night – that’s 33 per cent of the entire shelter population.
We spoke to a worker in the city’s family shelter program who told us anecdotally that the system has recently taken in more Roma people, but that it doesn’t presently appear to be a dramatic increase.
Toronto police say they haven’t received any formal complaints about any of the panhandlers, nor do police have any information indicating that the women are involved in an organized network.
As for the future of those who have appeared on Toronto’s doorstep, immigrant counsellors say they’re now preparing to mobilize, to hit the streets and help in any way they can.
And the story doesn’t end here — on Tuesday, CityNews will have the story of one Roma panhandler, her struggles, and hope for the future.