The Doc Project

As asylum seekers show up on their doorstep, two Quebec women struggle with how to help

​Frances Ravensbergen and Sue Heller live near Canada's busiest illegal border crossing on Roxham Road, and they're desperate to show asylum seekers some sign of comfort.

​Frances Ravensbergen and Sue Heller live near Canada's busiest illegal border crossing at Roxham Road

Frances Ravensbergen and Sue Heller wait on Roxham Road near the border, ready to welcome asylum seekers. (David Zinman/Aaron Lakoff)

"We're on the famous Roxham Road," says Sue Heller from her 200-acre farm near Hemmingford, Quebec.
Sue Heller lives on Roxham Road, just half a kilometre from the border. On her farm she has a horse, chickens, ducks, pigs, and sheep. (David Zinman/Aaron Lakoff)

This quiet country lane became famous in 2017. It's the most-favoured site for asylum seekers to cross the US-Canada border. Last year, 19,000 people made the journey through New York State to Roxham Road.

Locals like Sue Heller want to help, even if they can only make a small difference.

"We want them to be greeted in a more welcoming way," says Frances Ravensbergen, who also lives nearby. "It's very small but it's part of wanting to make the people crossing know that, right from the very first step, there is support for them in Canada."

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A potluck at Ravensbergen's house in December ended up with neighbours forming a new activist group, Bridges Not Borders.

Signs in English and French state that people will be arrested if they cross the border into Canada at Roxham Road. (Aaron Lakoff/David Zinman)
The group has started to hold information meetings in Hemmingford, aimed at making more neighbours aware of the situation unfolding almost on their doorstep. And they make regular visits to the American side of the border, where the locals call out words of welcome to asylum seekers before the RCMP arrests those people for an illegal crossing.

A family crosses the Canadian border at Roxham Road. (David Zinman/Aaron Lakoff)
"These are all just small things that we can do to try to improve the environment while we work at a more political level to try to make things better," says Ravensbergen.

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But what would be the most helpful to those trying to cross? Zein Al Abdullah met with Heller and Ravensbergen to give them suggestions. She crossed the border at Roxham Road last year, after first arriving in the US, having fled her hometown of Aleppo, Syria. Al Abdullah felt worried that US President Donald Trump would deport all Syrian refugees back to Syria, as he had vowed to do.

Syrian Zein Al Abdullah crossed the border at Roxham Road. Hemmingford activists Sue Heller and Frances Ravensbergen travelled to Montreal to meet with her. (David Zinman/Aaron Lakoff)

"I was so scared," says Al Abdullah about the morning she entered Canada. "It would have been very important to have someone, or some message of comfort, saying it's the right place to cross. Because when I crossed, I didn't see anyone."

Google Satellite view of Roxham Road, split at the Canada/US border between Quebec and New York State. Sue Heller's farm is on Roxham Road, half a kilometre north of this point.

Ultimately, Frances Ravensbergen hopes the effort to welcome those crossing at Roxham Road will come to an end. She wants Canada to offer an official, legal route into the country for asylum seekers who are afraid to remain in the US. Currently the Safe Third Country Agreement between the two nations makes it impossible for people who have arrived first in the US to then enter Canada as a refugee.

People should not be entering Canada through a ditch. They should be able to use a formal crossing.- Frances Ravensbergen

In the meantime, she and her neighbours are at work on a banner to hang between two trees beside Roxham Road, offering words of welcome to the asylum seekers they can't greet in person.

"I recognize that it's extremely limited," she says of the banner's potential effect. "But it's what we can do."
The new border banner near Roxham Road, made by Bridges Not Borders. (Sue Heller)

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About the producers
Aaron Lakoff (Nora Tremblay-Lamontagne)

Aaron Lakoff is an independent journalist and community organizer based in Montreal. His work combines a passion for popular education, social justice, and artistic expression. He has filed radio and written reports from Haiti, Israel/Palestine, Mexico and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Aaron produces a monthly podcast, The Rebel Beat.

David Zinman

David Zinman is one half of the Treyf Podcast, a show about Jewish politics. David previously hosted the Media Coop's Dominion Podcast and was a former contributor to CKUT's Off the Hour news collective.

This documentary was edited by Tom Howell.