There’s the family of nine from Sudan, with girls age 14, 13, 9, and 5, and boys 11, 8 and 2; the Syrian woman with a boy, 3, and a girl, 1; and a Palestinian family with three kids and triplets on the way — mother is “tired but happy.”
They are just three of the families who are leaving the YMCA Residence for refugees downtown this week to move into their own apartments in Montreal.
Unlike the thousands of Syrian refugees who have arrived in the city over the past two years, many of these families came north through the U.S. to seek asylum, and are not sponsored by either the government or Montrealers. They are on their own.
For Maryse Poisson, a social worker at the YMCA where about 580 people are living, it has become an urgent matter to get them dishes, chairs, sofas, mattresses, sheets, books, computers, etc., etc., etc.
“We accompany them as best we can, but every day, asylum seekers leave the residence to go to empty apartments, with a welfare cheque that barely allows them to make ends meet, and often they have nothing left to buy furniture,” Poisson wrote on a Facebook site created to help the new arrivals. “It’s a real emergency situation.”
According to PRAIDA — the Programme régional d’accueil et d’intégration des demandeurs d’asile, the Quebec government program for welcoming and integrating asylum seekers that works through the CLSC in Côte-des-Neiges — the number of new refugee claimants arriving at the YMCA has risen dramatically over the last year, to 720 in April, from 133 in May 2016. (March 2017 saw a peak at 793).
Those figures mirror the most recent statistics made public Monday by the federal immigration department for the number of people intercepted by the RCMP at Quebec’s border with the U.S.
The number of asylum seekers illegally crossing into other parts of Canada went down in April compared to March, but 672 people entered Quebec illegally in April, up from 644 in March — almost five times the number who crossed into Manitoba in April. They almost invariably end up at the YMCA downtown, which has 600 beds.
Among them were Ayman Alsabbagh, who crossed the border from New York State at Roxham Rd., with his three children and his pregnant wife.
Alsabbagh, though Palestinian by nationality, has lived his entire life in Saudi Arabia, where he worked for the last 15 years as an IT solutions manager. But last year his sponsor cancelled his visa, and he had to leave the country.
“They cancelled my residence (permit) without reason or nothing, then they wanted to send me to Gaza,” Alsabbagh said. “But I can’t go there — I’ve never even been there. It’s the worst place for my family.”
So the Alsabbaghs got a visitor’s visa for the U.S. They lived in Las Vegas for eight months, and spent four months in Florida. They applied for asylum in the U.S. Then Donald Trump was elected, and Alsabbagh’s wife became pregnant with triplets.
“We got scared about what he said about refugees and immigrants, so I found myself in the same situation as in Saudi Arabia — in one second, you’ll be out,” Alsabbagh said. “And Justin Trudeau says, ‘Welcome refugees’ from the United States. So I crossed illegally — I had never done something like this before! But I felt I had to come.”
Alsabbagh and his family arrived at Roxham Rd. at about 6 a.m. on April 4, and were brought by the RCMP to file a claim for refugee status at the Lacolle border post. About 7 p.m., they got on a bus that took them straight to the YMCA downtown; they have lived for the last six weeks in a room with four beds.
They signed a lease Tuesday night for a two-bedroom apartment in Brossard, and then went to look for a bed.
“I saved a little bit of money for a mattress — but the apartment is empty,” said Alsabbagh, who moved in Wednesday. “That’s all I have.”
It’s a predicament common to many of the recent arrivals.
Emmanuelle Paciullo, a spokesperson for PRAIDA, says that despite the surge in refugee claimants over the last four months, PRAIDA, in partnership with the YMCA, is able to house, and offer medical and psychosocial services to all those who need it. If and when the YMCA reaches full capacity, PRAIDA has external housing available to newcomers, she added.
But those helping refugees move beyond the YMCA say right now what they need are strollers, among other practical items.
The Sudanese family of nine, who was moving out of the YMCA to the West Island on Wednesday, needs everything, but most urgently mattresses — otherwise they will have to sleep on the floor.
Still, Alsabbagh says while they may not have any furniture, they feel they have a future here, unlike in Saudi Arabia or the U.S. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency, 41,318 immigrants were arrested — up 37.6 per cent over the same time last year — including 11,000 immigrants without any criminal record.
Alsabbagh’s hearing for his refugee claim in this country is scheduled for June 2.
“If Canada allows me to stay and work and have my business here, and my kids can go to school, then we will have everything here,” Alsabbagh said. “I’m just worried about the hearing. But people here are very nice and very helpful and people respect you. Even the border guards, they respected me and spoke to me politely. I crossed the border illegally and they helped me with the luggage and the kids. That never happened in Saudi Arabia.”