The first thing that struck me about the young woman I randomly met outside work last month is that she was wearing no socks in the bitter cold. We struck up a conversation, and she told me a harrowing story. Just 21 years old, the Eritrean national left her mother in Saudi Arabia, buying a one way ticket to Washington D.C. with money scraped together from friends and family. Her solo journey took her to New York, where she says she heard from others about the so called Underground Refugee Railroad. “Get yourself to Plattsburgh, New York,” they told her, “and you can walk across the border into Canada.”
21. The same age as my son. Listening to her, my mind raced,”could I send my son off like that? Could he make such a journey?” I can’t imagine the desperation this young woman’s mother must have felt, packing her off alone to an unknown future; one that must have, in her eyes, been better than life in Saudi Arabia. (Google what happens to those who don’t have Saudi citizenship, and then Google Eritrea to get a sense of the dilemma.)
I came to Plattsburgh, New York, because I wanted to see it for myself. I needed to try to wrap my head around why so many are so desperate they would pack their lives into small suitcases, and seek out arrest by stepping over a tiny wooden crossing at the bottom of a dead end road.
I understand the political discourse sparked by this illegal way of gaining entry to Canada: the concerns about queue jumping and the unfairness of some getting to the front of the line by essentially breaking the law. 50 percent of Canadians, in a recent IPSOS poll, said the people who make crossings like these should be deported.
What I don’t understand is the many comments on our Facebook page. The “shoot ’em dead” narrative that seems to play out again and again, where comments of compassion are shot down with the overused insult du jour: “libtard, snowflake.” Surely, as Canadians we can elevate the conversation beyond killing and wall building as the solutions to complex political, humanitarian and moral issues.
Standing at this rural crossing that has become a magnet for the desperate, I watched a shell-shocked young man, and what appeared to be his elderly parents, saying one word again and again “Canada, Canada, Canada” as they crossed over. An RCMP officer kept repeating “You are safe, you are safe.”
Later, I watched a taxi drop off six people, including a young girl, hoisted on a woman’s hips. They had just a few pieces of luggage — their entire lives packed in bags that most of us would need for a weekend vacation. One man tried to run back to get a suitcase that he’d accidentally left on the U.S. side. The RCMP yelled at him not to cross back. The bag sat there long after the family had been taken for security and health checks. It’s now gone. An RCMP officer later told me it had been picked up by U.S. agents and has been returned to the man now being processed in Canada.
These are people. Human beings. International humanitarian law obliges nations to welcome refugees. These border runners, if deemed legitimate refugees by Immigration Canada, will be given a chance to do what refugees have done in this country for centuries, make this Canada stronger and better. Those who are found not to be at risk of persecution in their homeland will be deported and could be criminally charged with entering Canada illegally.
I have no idea whether those crossing here are legitimate refugees. That is for Immigration Canada to investigate. I don’t know how I feel about a loophole being used to gain easy access to this country. Nor do I know the impact it is having on legal refugee claims. What I do know is a mother’s love for a child, and how that love propels you to do just about anything for even a glimmer of a better life.
The 21-year-old sockless woman I met in downtown Toronto came over to my house recently for a family dinner. We gather around my computer and skyped her mom in Saudi Arabia. Crackling reception, two mothers, two different languages, she cried knowing her daughter was safe, having dinner in another mother’s home.