On January 11, Hiyab, Arsema and Kidisti* stood outside the Red Cross building on Randolph Avenue in Toronto, facing a hard decision.
It was 8 p.m. They had just arrived from Montreal, and thought the Red Cross could provide them with shelter—instead, they found a sign telling them to return in the morning. It was their first night in a city they had travelled a great distance to take refuge in, and it seemed possible they might spend it homeless.
They had arrived in the United States on December 23, fleeing what they described as a difficult existence in Saudi Arabia. As Eritreans, they had no right to citizenship. As women, they were expected to conform to the nation’s rigid laws governing female behaviour. As Christians, they were forced to practise their faith in secret, and risked severe punishment if their beliefs became known, according to Arsema.
Afraid that their refugee claims would be rejected in the U.S., but unable to secure visas that would allow them to fly directly to Canada, sisters Hiyab, 22, and Arsema, 26, arrived in Seattle and stayed in hotels while they researched the best way to enter Canada. Their friend, Kidisti, 26, had flown into Washington, D.C., in early December.
The three women met up in Plattsburg, N.Y., on January 10 and said they managed to enter Canada, unauthorized and undetected,by crossing the Champlain/Lacolle border—which connects Champlain, N.Y., and St. Bernard-de-Lacolle, in the town of Blackpool, Que.
They later filed inland refugee claims at the local Quebec police station.(The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States prohibits asylum seekers entering Canada from the U.S. to make a refugee claim at the border.)
But when they arrived in Toronto, the city’s shelter beds were full. Collectively, they had $350. None had a credit card. It was getting dark, the temperature was dropping and they had nowhere to go.
A perfect storm
Every year, thousands of asylum seekers arrive at Canada’s ports of entry and file refugee claims.
The majority of refugees who come to Canada —roughly 40,000 in the past year—come through private or government sponsorship. But as a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Canada has a responsibility to provide asylum to those who would face a serious threat to their life or their freedom were they returned to their countries of origin.
As anti-immigrant rhetoric has flared south of the border, an increasing number of asylum-seekers are opting to come to Canada. Those who arrive in this manner, however, often face greater challenges than sponsored refugees. Unlike sponsored refugees, claimants do not have immediate access to government services or the support of a sponsoring community.They often turn to community refugee settlement organizations such as Toronto’s Romero House, an organization founded by Catholic human rights activist Mary-Jo Leddy to help refugee claimants find support, legal aid and shelter.
“We have people constantly showing up at our door, and our capacity to house them at Romero House is quite low,” Romero House director Jenn McIntyre said. She noted that the organization’s 10 apartments are “nearly always full.”
Homeless shelters are often packed and unable to accommodate refugees. As Toronto housing costs have gone up, it has become more difficult for people to move out of shelters and into market rate housing, said McIntyre. Some shelters had occupants staying an average of three months before moving on, she said. Recently, those wait times have doubled.
For asylum-seekers arriving in the city, this has created a perfect storm.
A room to spare
On the night of January 11, however, Hiyab, Arsema and Kidisti got lucky. After a good deal of searching, they found a hotel that would rent them a room for $144, and let them cover the deposit in cash.
When they returned to the Red Cross the next day, they were told their only option was a homeless shelter. The three women, afraid this would mean separation and already far outside of their comfort zone, said they would go anywhere else, even a police station.
The Red Cross called Romero House and asked if anyone could house the women.
By day’s end, Romero House found them a caseworker, who whisked them north to Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood, where they were met by Murray McCarthy and Martha Asselin on the front steps of what would become their first home in Toronto.
Sitting in their living room several weeks later, Asselin and McCarthy said that they first heard about the problem of refugees facing homelessness while reading The Anglican, the diocese of Toronto’s newspaper.
Archbishop Colin Johnson, diocesan bishop of Toronto and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, had written an impassioned plea in the January 2017 issue, asking Torontonians if they “had a room to spare” to temporarily house recently arrived asylum seekers.
In his column, Johnson related an incident in which a refugee family had ended up sleeping in a park, and urged Anglicans to open their homes.
“We need this emergency response now, even as we continue to work for more accessible and affordable housing for all,” he wrote.
Johnson named Romero House as one of the key organizations helping refugees settle in the city, and encouraged those interested to get in touch. The diocese also released a video making the same appeal.
With their three children no longer living at home, McCarthy said it was an easy decision to make.
“There was a need, and there was a call by the church to do what we could, and we felt we had the capacity to do that,” he said.
The arrangement is temporary—Hiyab, Kidisti and Arsema hope to move into their own apartment in the near future—but it has allowed them space and room to take their bearings and prepare for their refugee hearing.
“We are lucky and blessed to be here,” said Hiyab. “Not a lot of people get this chance.”
McCarthy and Asselin are not the only ones so far to have opened their homes. McIntyre said three Anglican individuals and families have also taken in temporary refugees, including an Anglican priest, the Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe, who was instrumental in orchestrating the diocesan call-out.
Metcalfe, who has a 17-year-old Afghan refugee staying in a spare room in his apartment, said that the experience is much less disruptive than he had expected it would be.
“He just feels like part of the family, to be honest,” he said, adding that the young man has become good friends with his own 18-month-old daughter.
Metcalfe and McIntyre both said that while the initiative has borne fruit, longer-term solutions are needed. The city needs to provide more shelter spaces, but it also needs to create more affordable housing.
“It is a national crisis, and to solve it is going to take planning,” said Metcalfe. Zoning changes that require developers to build more diverse forms of housing, and provide more affordable housing, might be a way of laying the groundwork, he said.
For Hiyab, Arsema and Kidisti, the future is not yet secure. Like all asylum-seekers who make claims on Canadian soil, there is a chance that the judge hearing their case will decide it is unfounded, and order them deported back to Saudi Arabia.
But despite this uncertainty, all three are preoccupied with their plans for the future.
Hiyab wants to go to university to study design and fashion. Arsema holds a degree in business administration, but hopes to continue on to higher education while working. Kidisti wants to be a nurse.
“Being Christian, to live there [Saudi Arabia] is like hell on earth,” Arsema said. “Every day we wake up and thank God?People [in Toronto] are so friendly and helpful—it’s a beautiful city.
*Names have been altered and no photos taken of the interviewees at their request. At press time,they had not had their hearings at the Immigration and Refugee Board, and were concerned about being identified should their claims be rejected and they be deported to Saudi Arabia.