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Expect Families in Streets if Refugee Society Closes, Says Homeless Advocate

Feeling unsafe in US, one woman brought her family to Canada; the Inland Refugee Society helped avoid homelessness.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 22 Jun 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

Mrs. Naveed hesitates when asked what would have happened when her family arrived as undocumented refugees if the Inland Refugee Society of B.C. didn’t exist.

The society, lead by refugee services director Mario Ayala, helps families arriving in Canada, including finding shelter so they don’t end up on the streets while applying for asylum.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Naveed said. (We have not used her first name for privacy reasons.) “If Mario was not here I don’t know what would have happened to us. Where would we go?”

Often the society finds refugees shelter in private homes or makes other arrangements. With a budget of $180,000, they manage to help about 700 people annually settle in B.C.

But a wave of refugees leaving the United States has swamped the society. It has already spent its annual budget and is in danger of closing, Ayala said.

About 50 per cent of those he helps are families, he said. Ten per cent of the families are single mothers with children.

If the society closes there is no one to help and they could wind up on Vancouver streets, Ayala said.

Both the federal and provincial governments have refused to provide funding, although the Canada Border Services Agency constantly refers people to the society for help.

That’s how Naveed’s family found the society.

Naveed and her husband and son wound up in Canada after fleeing their native Pakistan, where she says Islamic extremists beat her up twice and threatened to kill her son because of her work for women’s rights.

People were following her and watching her, she said, and when it became too much to bear the family left for New York to claim asylum last year. Her second son was born there.

But the rise of Donald Trump brought new perils in the U.S., Naveed said.

As they waited for their refugee claim to be processed, her 10-year-old son was called a terrorist and bullied at school. One day two classmates spat in his face. School administrators sympathized, blaming Trump and social media, but said there was little they could do to stop it, Naveed said.

“That was the last day he went to school,” she added.

It was then Naveed decided the U.S. was not the place for her family to seek refuge and struck out for Canada.

On Feb. 22 they crossed the border on foot at Blaine, Wash., after seeing news reports that it was a common place to cross.

Naveed said she and her husband had no idea where they were going to sleep after crossing.

“We never thought of that,” she said. “But I heard the people are so helping. The Canadian police are so helpful.”

Authorities referred Naveed and her family to the Inland Refugee Society and they are now awaiting their claim to be heard while living in safe housing.

Crisis looms as more cross border

It’s an increasingly common tale.

In a regular year the society helps about 700 people, Ayala said. But it’s already closing in on that number after less than six months. It’s the same story in other parts of Canada. More than 2,500 have people crossed into Quebec this year, topping other provinces.

Ayala said many people the society helps say they left the U.S. because they feared the Trump administration’s plans for refugees.

Because Canada signed an agreement designating the U.S. a safe third country, almost all refugee claimants who attempt to cross at an official point of entry are sent back across the border.

As a result thousands are entering Canada illegally through fields and woods to apply for refugee status once in the country.

The society, supported by funders including the City of Vancouver and Vancity Credit Union, approached the federal government for financial support.

Alaya says an official told him the government cannot be seen to be helping undocumented refugees. The government refused to comment on the rejection.

Judy Graves, former homeless advocate for the City of Vancouver, challenges that position.

“Can the government not be seen to be stopping a crisis in the streets of Vancouver?” asked Graves. “That’s the issue. It really doesn’t matter who it is, we don’t have the capacity anywhere in our existing systems to do the work of the Inland Refugee Society.”

She said refugees have different needs than the general homeless population, including translation services and help navigating the immigration system.

Graves said homeless shelters and programs are already beyond their capacity due to high housing costs. A sudden influx of undocumented refugees on the street could put further strain on resources, she added.

Graves is concerned Vancouver will start to see migrant families sleeping outdoors due to Ottawa’s refusal to help. That could lead to children being apprehended and placed in foster care, she added.

“At this point we rarely see children or families with children in the street,” she said. “We have no way to deal with that.”

Graves said refugees are arriving this way because of federal policy — the safe third country agreement and the Liberals message of welcoming refugees — and it’s Ottawa’s job to step up and deal with situation.

East Vancouver NDP MP Jenny Kwan has been pressing the Liberal government for action. But when she asked Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen about funding for the society in Question Period, he responded with talking points about the government’s support for refugees.

Hussen has not been available for questions from media.

As Ayala struggles to find funding, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was spreading his message welcoming refugees again Tuesday morning, World Refugee Day.

“When we embrace our differences & come together to welcome newcomers, we strengthen our communities,” tweeted Trudeau.

Meanwhile Naveed has been working to help others seeking the society’s support.

She said many are grateful for the society’s services and in the future she plans to open up her own home to refugees.

But part of her doesn’t want to have her own home just yet.

“We are still here with Mario and we don’t want to leave Mario,” she said, breaking into laughter. “This is our home and Mario is a father for us and we don’t want to leave him.”  [Tyee]

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