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Erbil, Seattle, Vancouver: why one asylum seeker walked across the border into B.C.

Ribwar Omar, 38, applied for a visitor visa from the United States from Erbil, Iraq. But he never intended to stay.

'Suddenly, everything turned bad,' says Ribwar Omar, who fled Iraq

'I left behind many precious things and precious people,' said Omar, sitting in his Burnaby apartment. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

On a rainy day last November, 38-year-old Ribwar Omar woke up in a Seattle hotel room and packed all his worldly belongings into a backpack he'd brought with him from Erbil, Iraq.

He boarded a train, then three buses, momentarily lost before arriving in the town of Blaine, Wash., just south of the Canadian border.

Omar had landed in New York City just a few days earlier, an American visitor visa in hand. But he never planned to stay long — he left Iraq in the hopes of crossing into Canada by foot and applying for asylum.

"I thought about Europe, but the way to go illegally was too difficult and scary," he said.

"I didn't see that my place could be in the U.S. I heard from the news that they even deport some people that lived there for many years."

Omar now lives in an apartment in Burnaby, with two other refugees. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Omar left Iraq because he feared for his life, saying he grew especially concerned when his employer, Oxfam, evacuated all international employees from his office out of concern for their safety.

Omar is one of 2,350 asylum seekers whose claim was processed by the Canadian Border Service Agency in B.C. in 2017, compared to 1,375 the year before.

And he was one of 350 who crossed into B.C. over a land border, compared to 225 in 2016.

In Quebec, the number of asylum seekers jumped from 5,535 in 2016 to 25,500 in 2017, prompted in part by travel restrictions to the U.S. and changes to U.S. immigration policy introduced by the Trump administration.

Chris Friesen with Immigration Services Society of B.C. — a resettlement organization based in Vancouver — said that the increase in asylum seekers is in part driven by Canada's reputation as a safe haven, especially after welcoming 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015.

"Mixed with our actions abroad, this high profile movement of Syrian refugees, and messages out of the Prime Minister's office, this has all created an image in the global community that's very contrary to many parts of Europe and the United States," Friesen said.

Omar takes care of his few possessions, keeping the shoes he crossed the border in safe inside a plastic bag. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Omar's plan to cross over was carefully thought out.

He first looked into applying for a Canadian visa but, worrying the process would take too long, applied for a visitor's visa to the U.S. instead.

Omar looked up articles about how other people had crossed into Canada, eventually deciding that B.C., with its more forgiving climate, would be the best place to make his attempt.

He told only a select few of his 10 siblings, fearing that he'd be apprehended if word of his plan got out.

'Am I going to get shot?'

On that chilly November morning last fall in Blaine, he bought a hot chocolate, then, using his phone's GPS, looked for the best route to make the crossing.

"I was so scared that police might appear at anytime and what might happen to me — am I going to get shot?" he said.

Omar headed through a dense forest, along what he said looked like a path that someone else had cleared.

Eventually, the trees thinned, revealing a ditch with a shallow stream running.

He jumped over, and found himself safely at Surrey, B.C.'s zero avenue.

Immigrant Services Society of B.C. has now helped Omar get settled in a Burnaby apartment, which he shares with two other refugees. He's made his asylum claim, and is now waiting to hear about his hearing date.

'At least here I’m safe, I’m secure. That’s everything for me right now, that’s everything,' said Omar. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Omar, who has a master's degree in law from an Australian university, said he hopes to eventually practice in Canada, and continue the humanitarian work that forced him to flee Iraq.

Losing his asylum bid, he said, and getting sent back to Iraq would be a "disaster" for him.

"If you had options you might choose the best one. But sometimes you only have one option, and it's your safety," he said. 

"I used to have a good job back home. A good job, a good family, everything. But suddenly, everything turned bad."

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC Vancouver. She previously reported in Lebanon and Chile.