British Columbia

Avenue 0: How U.S. asylum seekers are finding their way to British Columbia

291 apprehended by RCMP in 2017's first 2 months; non-profit director doesn't think pace will slow

0 Avenue

0 Avenue in Surrey, B.C. separates the United States from Canada. In some areas there is a small forest or fence dividing the countries, but in other places the neighbourhoods blend together. (Google Streetview) (Google Earth )

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Abdul and his family boarded a flight from New York to Seattle at the end of February and then took a taxi to the Washington border town Blaine. 

Pushing a stroller with their newborn baby inside on that town's A Street, they crossed an unguarded, unfenced park onto 0 Avenue in Surrey, B.C.   

Then police arrived.

'We walked around five to seven minutes and then [they] caught us," said Abdul, whose last name and identity of his family is being withheld out of concern for their safety. 

"They didn't shout at us, they were very humble and very calm officers."

Abdul's family have been living in Vancouver since. They're part of 130 asylum seekers apprehended by the RCMP in B.C. in the first two months of 2017 — 31 less than Manitoba, where refugees have attracted international coverage.

"We have seen a rise in the numbers of people coming, especially families crossing the border," said Mario Ayala, director of the Inland Refugee Society.

"The resources are the same, [but] the needs are growing ... it's hard for us to help these people properly." 

Mario Ayala

Mario Ayala, director of the Inland Refugee Society, says asylum seekers to Canada have been on the rise in 2017.

Chose Canada after hearing Trudeau speak

The last year has been a whirlwind for Abdul and his family. Their journey started in their home country of Pakistan, where Abdul admits life was good.

"We had good jobs over there, our own house. We had all kinds of happiness," he said.

But the family decided to move to the United States because of political persecution for their liberal beliefs, and say they went through the appropriate channels to obtain American visas.

They settled in Brooklyn, their son started going to school, and soon Abdul's wife had another son; an American citizen.

"American people and America is a good country, I like and respect that country," said Adbul.

However, he says shortly after Donald Trump became president, things changed. Trump signed an executive order restricting entry to the United States for travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries in late January, leading to chaos and confusion at airports across North America.  

Though Pakistan was not one of the countries, Abdul said his son was bullied at school for being a Muslim and was spat on.

"They said, 'you are Muslim and you are terrorist. You have bombs in your pockets,'" said Abdul, recalling his son's tears. 

Seven months after putting down roots in Brooklyn, the family was once again on the move, settling on Canada after hearing a speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on television.

"One day, I saw a news channel. The [Prime Minister] of Canada said we will welcome that kind of people who have problem," said Abdul.

"They come here, that's why we decided to move here."

Photo of Abdul

The last name and identity of Abdul, whose hands are seen here, is being withheld out of concern for his family's safety.

Family in limbo

Ayala and the Inland Refugee Society don't ask questions when families like Abdul's seek asylum, he just tries his best to help.

There's more and more people to help: as of March 27, they've had 237 people seek their services, compared to 141 for the first three months of 2016.

Ayala is afraid his agency won't be able to keep up with the growing demand, predicting an influx of Mexican nationals from California will soon join the swelling numbers.

"I am from the Latino community. I watch the Spanish channels and they say basically run to Canada, Canada is safe and they will welcome you," Ayala said.

"Don't worry they're welcome you. So why not Canada instead of this fear [of prosecution] in the United States?" 

The Inland Refugee Society has put Abdul's family up in an apartment, which they share with another family. They have applied for asylum, and are in limbo waiting.

The father of two is eager to get a job and have peace of mind that they won't be deported.

"If we go back to Pakistan, we have fear in the back of our minds … we have death threats over there," he said.

Like any father, he has ambitions for his children. 

"It's my wish when my children grow up that they get a good education and live in a peaceful environment, and that environment is in Canada.

"Canada's the only place that has peace and calmness."

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