For many asylum seekers in Montreal, long journey includes stop at YMCA

The organization that helps newly arrived asylum seekers in Montreal find housing at the YMCA and social services says there's been a significant but manageable spike in clients in the past year.

Organization that helps those seeking refugee status sees significant but manageable spike in past year

Many refugee claimants stay at the YMCA residence in Westmount when they first arrive in Canada. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

After paying a smuggler nearly $2,000 to get him to within a kilometre of the Quebec-U.S. border, Mohammed El-Hashemi walked into Canada at an unmarked crossing not far from Lacolle, Que. 

In the two years since, the 48-year-old from Yemen has been granted refugee status, managed to find an apartment and two jobs, at a call centre and a factory.

"If there was no war in Yemen, I wouldn't come," he said. "Canada is the most secure country."

Like many refugee claimants who arrive in Quebec, El-Hashemi spent his first weeks at the YMCA residence in Westmount on the outskirts of downtown Montreal. 

Mohammed El-Hashemi, a refugee from Yemen (centre), speaks at a news conference alongside Francine Dupuis, associate executive director of the CIUSSS Centre-Ouest Montreal (left) and Ibtihal Kaddour, a refugee from Syria. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Accommodation at the building on Tupper Street is among the services offered by PRAIDA, the provincial government organization that helps claimants in their first months.

On Wednesday, the organization offered details on how its been coping with the influx of asylum seekers that have come to Quebec in recent months. 

'We are not being overwhelmed'

This graph shows the growth in the number of refugee claimants using PRAIDA's services in the past 13 months. (CIUSSS Centre-Ouest Montreal)
Francine Dupuis, associate executive director of the CIUSSS Centre-Ouest, which oversees PRAIDA, said there has been a significant but manageable spike in clients in the past year.

"For now, it's fine. We are not being overwhelmed," she said at a news conference alongside El-Hashemi and another refugee, Ibtihal Kaddour, a Syrian who arrived in 2015 with her daughter.

Dupuis said there have always been fluctuations in the number of asylum seekers coming to Canada, citing, for example, Haitians who came to Quebec after the 2010 earthquake and Kosovars who fled interethnic violence in the late 1990s.

Last month, PRAIDA offered help to 329 people, compared with 143 during the same month a year earlier. 

The increase, she said, may be due to a combination of a change in policies under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the arrival of President Donald Trump south of the border. 

But Dupuis stressed she doesn't know for certain.

"How are we to know that?" she said. "We are here to provide a humanitarian service."

Struggle to adapt

Not everyone who makes a refugee claim at the border uses PRAIDA's services, Dupuis said, explaining that some stay with family or friends, or even at a hotel. 

But she said many refugee claimants suffer from post-traumatic stress after leaving their homeland under duress, and they benefit from psychological counselling. 

Children, especially, require care when they arrive in Canada, and parents often need help enrolling them in school, she said. 

Refugee claimants are given three meals a day at the YMCA. (PRAIDA)

PRAIDA also helps newcomers find a place to live, apply for social assistance or language courses and, ultimately, look for employment.

Dupuis said it's difficult to predict whether the number of claimants in need of assistance will continue to rise.

If it does, though, PRAIDA may eventually require more government funding, she said. 

'Very welcoming, very generous'

El-Hashimi is hopeful his wife and two daughters who are now living in the United Arab Emirates will soon join him in Montreal.

The YMCA residence in Westmount has a playroom for children. (PRAIDA)
He was travelling in the United States when war broke out in 2015. He decided it was not safe to return and that Canada would be a safer, better option.

A smuggler helped him get from Buffalo to a road north of Plattsburgh, N.Y. He walked the rest of the way.

"The procedure in the United States takes seven years," he said, explaining his decision, whereas Canada is "very welcoming, very generous."