SEEKING ASYLUM: 

THE UNPAVED ROAD AFTER ROXHAM

By: Nicolas André

 

July 2020

Click above to listen to "Seeking Asylum: The Unpaved Road After Roxham" read by Nicolas André.

Making up for lost time and utilizing the spare quarantine has afforded, my father has been updating me on issues in Haiti: protests, gang violence, kidnappings, fuel corruption, etc. “These aren’t recent issues,” he told me. Somehow, Roxham Road in upstate New York, a countryside road leading toward Quebec’s border, stood out the most to me. For many, Roxham Road had been a one-way street leading to one of Canada’s unofficial borders. In 2017, when the Trump administration took office and vowed to constrict the States’ immigration policies, the end of the road was busier than ever. But, in March this year, when Premier Trudeau announced that U.S.-Canada borders would be closed due to the developing COVID-19 pandemic, Roxham Road became a two-way street that either led asylum seekers to detainment or deportation.

My father, Frantz André, receiving a medal from the National Assembly of Quebec for helping bring awareness to asylum seekers working in health care. 

My father has been working with asylum seekers in Montreal ever since he decided to dedicate himself wholly to advocate for people without status. He’s been in Canada for most of his life, and I’ve rarely pictured him anywhere else. 

As he told me about Roxham Road he had to pause. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that—this—” "It frustrates you," I inferred. “Well, yes!” I told him that I understood. My various interactions within the Haitian community have always been prompted by him—whether at creole markets, community centres, or various family functions, I often felt like an outsider. But, being my father’s son, family has never been interlocked by blood in those spaces; not when disaster has taken so many of them.

Learning about Roxham Road became more than just letting my father vent over immigration politics like I’d unfortunately gotten in the habit of—it meant realizing that to this day Haitians are continually displaced from their communities and families. Most have to weigh the risk of staying home and being persecuted, or seeking asylum in places like Canada and being forced to live with the looming fear of deportation; my grandparents knew this. Troubling statistics from February 2017 to March 2020 show that only 25.6% of Haitian asylum seekers in Canada who’ve had their claims finalized were accepted. This process can take years to complete, meaning that asylum claimants will often become familiarized with new communities long before their case is even looked at. If denied, they will be dislocated from their homes once again.

Being forced to leave my country is something I’ll likely never experience. The conditions of relocating form a perilous maze; and perhaps in easing the path for immigrant lives everyday, my father is repeatedly trying to trace a way out. During one of our phone calls, he asked me if I wanted to speak with a now accepted refugee, J. I agreed.

My father, aunts and grandparents, reunited in Montreal, 1964.

A year ago, J. was leaving Haiti as a political refugee. Luckily, a family member was waiting for him in Quebec.“For me,” he said, “it was after a sort-of attack on my country. I was in Haiti and working. But there was a problem with a well-known politician, and he had sent for my killing. I almost died but I was able to escape, and I had my sister in Montreal. She told me to seek asylum here.” Within a day of reaching Roxham Road, J. made his refugee claim; he was given his “papier brun,” a temporary worker’s status, and placed on a bus to Montreal. With community organizations and advocacy groups on his side, J. was able to find work.

J.’s case, however, is an exception. Due to the Safe Third Country Agreement, in effect since 2004, asylum seekers coming to either the United States or Canada must make their claims in the first “safe” country they arrive in. Even though he initially arrived in the U.S., J. was granted status in Canada since he had family inside. Organizations like the Canadian Council for Refugees have opposed the Agreement, challenging the notion that the U.S. is a safe place for refugees. Asylum seekers who fail to cross the U.S.-Canada border are typically left in the hands of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—temporarily held in a detention facility or forced back to the countries and homes they’ve been trying to escape.  

A few months ago, J. was waiting for a friend to join him in Montreal. However, with the new border restrictions, and without any familial link inside the country, his friend was turned around. What’s happened to him can only be presumed.

Haiti 2010

Still, some of us remain hopeful knowing that collective disaster can often spur widespread acts of philanthropy. In 2010, when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and other western cities in Haiti—or when the cholera outbreak was brought to Haiti by Nepalese United Nations Peacekeepers—the world seemed to stop and come to the rescue. For many, knowing that billions of dollars and aid workers were flooding into Haiti was enough to stamp out the nerves. For the population, however, these promises were but smoke and mirrors. Even today, as accountability campaigns in Haiti ask about the relief fund, Haitian gangs and government officials continue to strike fear in and mislead the people, perpetuating the country’s paralysis. Yet, further proof of their ability to come together, the people have single-handedly endured one disaster after another, ad infinitum.

Six years ago, authors Lucy Arendt and Dan Alesch published the book Long-Term Community Recovery from Natural Disasters. They argue that natural disasters rarely stop after the initial shock and “tend to continue to unfold and, often, cascade through the community long after the earth stops shaking, the wind diminishes, or the flood waters recede.” Arendt and Alesch concede that not every community is robust enough to survive this—what separates the viable ones are remnants of infrastructure; what survives forms the basis of future efforts.

I asked J if he would speak about his experience on January 12, 2010.“I spent two weeks looking for my mother,” he said, “some from the community came to help and give masks.” Once nothing was left to find in the remains of the earthquake, J, with his father and siblings, went to Sainte-Marthe where they could find shelter. “My mother had a friend who helped us. It was my family who helped me. Nothing was easy.” “I can only imagine,” I said, which seemed better than I understand at this point.

For most migrants, the ability to build new and familiar communities in estranged lands is contingent on the presence of pre-established community members and organisms. Without them, it would be like ale nan peyi san yon chapo, as the creole saying goes; meaning, meeting one’s end.

Haiti 2010

Minority populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The city’s lowest-income borough, Montreal-North—which also has the densest Haitian population in Québec—has the most cases out of any other borough in the country. As of mid-May, roughly 3% of all cases in Canada were in Montreal-North.

A few days after I spoke with J., I called Marjorie Villefranche, the director general at Maison d’Haiti, an organization founded in the ’70s that continues to successfully accommodate and educate immigrants to Montreal. “It should feel like a village,” she told me. “So, when they’re in a village, they’re surrounded by people they know, people they see, people they greet, generationally.” She also explained that the community goal “is maybe for someone to say: ‘I was once isolated. But now that I’m here, now that people know me and take care of me, maybe I can take care of someone as they once did for me.’”

Outside Maison d’Haiti.

Communal organizations like Maison d’Haiti typically rely on collaborative arrangements, interconnections made between children and between parents. The forty-or-fifty families Marjorie saw on a weekly basis prior to the pandemic, and the hundreds on holidays—not to mention new immigrants—depend on the space. But the pandemic has eliminated almost all of that.

“Quarantine was really an unexpected blow for everyone. The biggest challenge is to go and reinvigorate everyone—well, from a distance, of course,” she said, chuckling, “and convince them we aren’t really quarantined. We can still talk to each other and do things from our homes. But to pass all that energy through everyone is not so easy.”

One of the community’s concerns throughout the pandemic involves the lives of an estimated 1,500 Haitian asylum seekers currently working as orderlies for the province. While the federal government has allowed them to work in overextended long-term care homes, or otherwise known as CHSLDs, it's unclear whether some or any of these caregivers will be given permanent status. 

When asked about Haiti’s current state, Villefrance said, “That’s hard. I know that we have to stay resilient but, you know, there are limits. I look at the civil groups that are very active and doing a lot of great work. It keeps hope going. The country is not the government. The country is a civil society. The country is the people.”

"The country is not the government. The country is a civil society. The country is the people."

- Marjorie Villefranche

 Outside Meli-Melo.

My father used to take us to Marché Meli-Melo, one of the longest standing and most famous Haitian eateries in the province, run and co-founded by Jean-Michel Baptiste. When I arrived, Bossa Combo’s “Accolade” played in the background. 

Founded in 1984, Meli-Melo, along with its dishes, has made its way into the mainstream, like many other Caribbean-inspired restos. One should not pass up the opportunity to spill some sauce piquant over a hill of riz collé, and then have their stomach filled like it’s a stranded rain barrel during hurricane season. And this should not be taken for granted. “It wasn’t easy at the time,” Michel said. “All that was said about us: street gang, HIV, welfare—all these things brimmed at the time. But I think this helped us make efforts forward. We survived.”

The Marché itself sits just two blocks from Métro Jarry, so when commuters step out from the subway, the aromas billowing from its kitchen make Meli-Melo an easy but unique find. Thanks to eateries like Michel’s, Montreal has taken strides from the familiar casse-croûte or fast-food joint on every corner. “Before,” said Michel, “people didn’t know about creole food at all. And now, people will go places, and instead of asking for griot, they’ll ask for a Meli-Melo—not even when they’re here.” But more than the food, the establishment is a proverbial lighthouse for people looking to find their footing in the city. Meli-Melo has become a reference point for them, explained Michel. Today, before Haitian migrants are let inside the country, immigration agents will sometimes ask them if they know of Meli-Melo. “We’re a public utility,” he said.

"[I]f the pandemic has proven one thing, it’s that we aren’t limited by our physical connections. We continue to show that, as long as there’s a place to meet, a place to eat, borders do not limit us."

Riz collé with a side of fried plantains and some glasses of Couronne fruit champagne.

At that point I thought I finally understood. Crisis has continually disrupted Haiti’s momentum, and, as always, the threat is invisible. But if the pandemic has proven one thing, it’s that we aren’t limited by our physical connections. We continue to show that, as long as there’s a place to meet, a place to eat, borders do not limit us.

I began to see the frustration my father had expressed to me. All the community members I spoke to imparted the same endurance that, ever since I can remember, has epitomized the Haitian identity: they’re all prepared to face the hardships that will inevitably come. The issues the coronavirus has and will cause for Haitians is seemingly just another thing to endure. 

 

The last conversation I had was with author Edwidge Danticat, whose writing reflects many fears within the community since the pandemic. “There are all these things that are challenging to the community. So now that this happened, I think it’s going to set the community back a lot,” she told me. “I’m just worried about how much suffering will happen. And I’m very afraid [sic] potentially what can happen in Haiti with the virus.”

"[I]f people are willing to infect themselves and their families in order to stand up for their rights, what’s more important: the growing pandemic or the corruption that has plagued Haiti ever since becoming the first Black republic?"

Haiti 2010

As of mid-June, Haiti has just over 4,000 Covid-19 cases and is snowballing by the day. In places like Port-au-Prince, a distant relative of mine told me, the streets remain unsanitary, people continue to work, and protests are prioritizing systemic corruption. It begs us to consider, if people are willing to infect themselves and their families in order to stand up for their rights, what’s more important: the growing pandemic or the corruption that has plagued Haiti ever since becoming the first Black republic?

In Canada, as Covid-19 cases are diminishing and we return to our version of normalcy—with most restaurants, gyms, and cafés anxiously picking up where they left off—the borders remain closed to non-essential travellers, like the asylum seekers without immediate family in Canada trapped on the other side. But this problem doesn’t begin or end in places like Roxham Road.

 

Like many Haitians, most people in the world are “always in crisis,” said Danticat. “That’s one thing I hope will become aware [sic]: what seems like someone’s temporary crisis was an ongoing crisis for a lot of people around the world. The healthcare crisis part of it, the food insecurity part of it, the uncertain-future part of it—for a lot of people, that’s daily life.”

My father holding the Haitian flag at a BLM protest.

It all became clear to me as I stood in the parking lot of the Prime Minister’s Montreal riding office with hundreds of others. This demonstration, organized by Debout pour la Dignité, took place in solidarity for granting permanent residential status to asylum seekers working on Québec’s COVID-19 front lines. My father was near the stage waiting for his turn to speak; I was holding his Haitian flag upright at the back of the crowd. It was then that I fully understood what Marjorie Villefranche told me: how she considered the people of Haiti, and not its government, to be the country’s paragon.

 

Despite the masks we wore, we were disregarding the barriers previously forced between us as we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a singular desire to strengthen the value of immigrant lives. It’s as though, whenever borders are broken, we’re reminded of each other’s stories and the importance in telling them. We carry each other without realizing it when we vocalize this; we endlessly endure because we’ve rarely had a moment free of crisis. But our crisis is everyone’s. Only borders can separate this—can separate us. And even then, inside them, we find that there never really was anything between us. Because we, the people, are the country.

My father holding the Haitian flag at a BLM protest.

Following my father and his flag through the protest.

Edited By: Bobbi Adair

Page Design: Keesha Chung