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ON THE SCENE: North Country woman helps asylum seekers with warm clothing
April 5, 2019

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Most days, Janet McFetridge can be found near the dead end of Roxham Road in Champlain handing out warm clothing and giving hugs to people seeking asylum in Canada, people fleeing the U.S., hopefully for a better life.

On Sunday, March 24, at the Keene Valley Library, McFetridge shared her reasons for her ongoing vigil that has received both praise and ridicule, the latter more often than not, from Canadians who feel that she is helping to dump our problems on them, which is using up their financial and human resources.

The Canadian-American border is the most extended and longest undefended border between two countries in the world, stretching 5,528 miles, along eight provinces and territories and 13 states.

While that's not expected to change, crossing the border is likely to become far harder, in particular along those areas where there isn't a formal crossing such as Champlain. The Canadian government recently proposed spending $1.18 billion over the next five years to support a new border strategy for detecting, intercepting and removing irregular migrants, as asylum seekers are known.

This may seem out of step in Canada, a country that takes great pride in its immigrant heritage, along with its hands-on approach of welcoming and helping immigrants rebuild their lives. Canada does not have an open-door policy; instead, it has a system in place for identifying, selecting and welcoming immigrants who they feel have the skills their economy needs.

Many seekers don't fit the profile Canada is seeking, resulting in many being rejected at times as high as 88 percent. Whether they are allowed to stay or not, the receiving, housing and processing are costing the Canadian national, provincial and local governments a lot of money and labor. Furthermore, it has created a two-year backlog in the courts. As a consequence, Canadians want to stop the flow.

The recent surge is an outcome of President Donald Trump's initial effort to freeze the refugee program, ban travelers to the U.S. from seven countries with a Muslim majority, and crack down on undocumented immigrants. He also sought to end protected status for Dreamers along with the nearly 58,000 Haitians who were welcomed into our country following the devastating 2010 earthquake and ended temporary protected status for 200,000 Salvadorans.

The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement states that refugees must seek protection from the first safe country they arrive in, such as the U.S., and may not then legally shift to another safe country, such as Canada. The loophole is if they get arrested crossing illegally into another safe country, then they can seek asylum.

Once in Canada, refugees are housed, fed, and provided health care and an education for their kids while their cases move through the courts.

Roxham Road was a major gateway for escaped slaves seeking sanctuary in Canada 170 years ago. Once again, it's become a major pipeline. People arrive daily, few adequately dressed for how nasty a North Country winter or spring can be. To help them make the last steps of their journey as safely as possible is McFetridge, a retired schoolteacher, and her carload of warm clothing.

During her talk, McFetridge stressed that though very empathetic and understanding of the problems the thousands of people flowing into Canada are causing, her priority is giving a bit of love and warmth to those crossing over. First with an introductory video, and then a multitude of slides, McFetridge illustrated and shared story after story of the difficult circumstances the arrivals are in.

"I'm leaving America because I was told I would be deported to Burundi," said one refugee on tape. "We fled Burundi when people wanted to kill us. I hope I'll be protected and that I'll live in freedom in Canada."

"When the new administration came in, it was like everything changed," said a Kenyan. "You don't know if you will be picked up and deported. It is like living with a noose around your neck."

The refugees said the new policies and rhetoric by the president and others has taken away the hope they had, leaving them little choice but to flee. McFetridge said she was unaware of the size of the flow pouring through her town until reading about it in newspapers in February 2017. To her surprise, she learned that the refugees' path was Roxham Road, a street close to her house. Curious, McFetridge went over to take a look and was shocked by the numbers and how poorly dressed many were for North Country conditions. Since then, she's been going to the road daily to hand out coats, gloves, hats, scarfs and socks.

"Our interactions are often emotional and heartfelt," said McFetridge. "The words may be brief, but the impact is powerful. As an example, a mother and three children arrived one day. While she was sorting out the bags, I asked the oldest child where she was from. She proudly said with a gigantic smile, 'I am from America, from California.' The mother explained that she was originally from Nigeria and could not return for fear that her daughter would be subjected to female genital mutilation. A man who said he was a Palestinian came. He took a hat and some gloves. He explained that he had eight sisters and now I'd be his newest sister."

McFetridge shared one emotional story after another. She said that she knows personally that many Canadians are upset by the illegal influx.

"It's a tough situation, absolutely," she said. "I totally see that point. My goal is to help people in need at that moment. If I can help them keep warm and give them a kind word, that is my goal."

"This is not anybody's problem; this is everybody's problem," said Vito Arste of Westport, who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island as a small child. "Today's a very different world than went I arrived, now there are eight billion of us."

"People like Janet inspire me," said Cheryl Raywood of Westport. "It's a human rights issue. It's essential that her effort gets supported when our society tends to hold back for whatever reasons be that a lack of information. These people need to be allowed to seek asylum. It's always been a bedrock issue of our democracy."

Janet McFetridge's presentation was made possible the Keene Valley Congregational Church, the Keene Valley Library and John Brown Lives!, which will be giving McFetridge their Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award May 4 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid.

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