Asylum seekers in Sudbury see essential work during pandemic as 'sacrifice'

The federal government says it is looking for way to recognize asylum seekers who are doing essential work during the pandemic. That could include several dozen refugee claimants living in Sudbury, waiting to hear if they'll be allowed to stay in Canada.

CBC has agreed not to use the full names of the asylum seekers

Moses is a 32-year-old father of five and asylum seeker from Uganda who is working as a food deliveryman in Sudbury during the pandemic. (Erik White/CBC )

Moses tries not to think about COVID-19 when he delivers takeout food in Sudbury. He thinks about his five kids.

The 32-year-old is originally from Uganda and came to Canada as an asylum seeker a year and a half ago. 

"Honestly, it's a bit difficult because you have to risk going out, most especially having a big family at home, you have to risk going out there," says Moses.

"My wife gets worried about it. Because you can't know which person you're going to contact, what's going to get you out there."

Moses says it's even more difficult not knowing whether he and his family will be allowed to stay in Canada, with no word on their refugee claim. 

"Looking at them and knowing their future is not yet settled, it's not yet secure," he says.   

"It really takes an emotional toll on us."

Okpele is a 42-year-old refugee claimant originally from Nigeria who took a job cleaning mining facilities in Sudbury during the pandemic. (Erik White/CBC )

One of Moses's children was born in Canada since they arrived and that's the same for Okpele, a 42-year-old originally from Nigeria.

The former lawyer is now a father of four. He came across an irregular border crossing from the United States in September 2018.

He's been in Sudbury for about a year now. His wife works at a nursing home and he took a job during the pandemic with a company that cleans the common spaces in mines, mills and smelters to protect workers from COVID-19.

"Canadians have really given us a lot, which we just have to give back to them. It's risky, but you just have to do it," says Okpele.

"You feel in danger, but if everyone had that mindset and chose to stay at home you'd have system collapse."

He too has yet to hear from the federal government on the status of his refugee claim and is "very worried, because you're settled, but you're not settled fully."

Abe says he left Nigeria in a hurry in February 2018 because there were threats against his life. He left his wife and two sons behind and came in Canada through an irregular border crossing on a very cold day. 

"I was just leaving to where I could be safe, so I didn't mind," says the 42-year-old.

A friend recommended he come to Sudbury last year and he's working as a security guard at a large retail store.

Abe is a 42-year-old from Nigeria who is living in Sudbury waiting for the Canadian government to rule on his refugee claim and working as a security guard at a large retail store. (Erik White/CBC )

At first it meant catching shoplifters, but during the pandemic he's focused on crowd control.

"It's not easy. It's going to be painful, it's going to be fearful. I took it as a time for me to sacrifice," says Abe. 

"Canada accepted me, they treated me well, they settle me down, they assisted me in keeping my life safe. So this was an opportunity for to reciprocate."

He says the other thing that "keeps me going" is the kind words from shoppers in the store who thank him for working during the health crisis. 

Abe hopes the federal government will also thank asylum seekers doing essential work with some kind of official status.

"If the government could do that for us it would be highly appreciated and people would do more," he says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is looking for a way to recognize the service of asylum seekers who are doing essential jobs during the pandemic, specifically mentioning nursing home workers. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The loudest lobbyists for refugee claimants working essential jobs have been from Quebec, where several provincial politicians have pushed the government to "regularize" their status. 

"We cannot open the door to say 'if you come illegally, if you find a job that's okay, I will accept you as an immigrant'," Quebec Premier Francois Legault said in a press conference earlier this month. "That's not the way it works."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that the immigration minister is looking for a way to acknowledge the "heroic work" of asylum workers, singling out those serving in nursing homes. 

"We are currently looking at how we can recognize that work and expedite the process," says Trudeau, adding that while the immigration system must be based on rules "in exceptional circumstances, we can make exceptions."


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to