Since 2017, volunteers from the group Bridges Not Borders have met hundreds of asylum seekers who came to Roxham Road near Hemmingford to seek refuge in Canada. Every Sunday until the border closure last spring, we went to Roxham Road on the U.S. side to welcome people. We also organized two refugee picnics in the summers of 2018 and 2019, sadly not repeated this year due to COVID-19. Two of the refugees who attended were a Nigerian woman called Kemi and her delightful daughter Iri. (These are pseudonyms to protect their identities.)
The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. means that people seeking asylum in Canada at a land border Port of Entry will be sent back to the U.S. unless they meet one of the exceptions to the agreement. People entering Canada irregularly at points such as Roxham Road are not covered by this agreement and are able to make a refugee claim. Kemi brought her daughter here to protect her from female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice still widespread in many countries. I recently interviewed Kemi in order to share her story in detail.
Having been for 20 years a manager in a large Nigerian company, Kemi’s life was materially comfortable. She belonged to the Yoruba ethnic group. Her husband, whom she married in the early 2000s, was also Yoruba, but from a different tribe whose marital customs diverged from hers. He told her that in his culture, intercourse did not take place for the first seven days after marriage. The reason for this became evident on their wedding day when, after the ceremony, elders from his tribe were waiting to perform a ritual which turned out to be FGM. In Kemi’s tribe FGM was not the norm and she adamantly refused and threatened to annul the marriage. Her husband accepted this, but afterwards the elders said that she must undergo FGM after conceiving a child. In the end Kemi and her husband adopted a five-month-old baby girl. Kemi assumed that her daughter would be safe because: ‘’I thought that whatever they did not do to me, they would not do to Iri.’’
As time went on, social pressure from the elders grew and Kemi’s husband said that Iri must undergo FGM before she was 10 years old. Kemi’s mother-in-law also insisted, and when Kemi refused, her husband hit her. She felt emotionally abused in her marriage and unable to protect her daughter from eventually being ‘cut.’ Although FGM was banned in Nigeria in 2015 it continues to take place and changes in attitude will take much longer. Police tend to treat it like a family issue and do not intervene. So Kemi could not look to the police for protection.
She considered getting a work transfer to a different part of the country, but northern Nigeria was not safe due to Boko Haram terrorism – which has killed thousands and displaced 2.3 million people — and it would have been culturally unacceptable for her to live there as a single woman with a child. Had she tried to move to the south of the country, her husband could easily have traced her. So, learning about Roxham Road from friends in the U.S., she made the difficult decision to come to Canada. She applied for a U.S. visa, as time was running out: Iri was approaching her 10th birthday. Applying for a Canadian visitors’ visa would have taken too long, and there is no such thing as an ‘asylum seeker visa’ to any country.
Some 200 million women and girls alive today in countries of Africa, the Middle East and Asia have been subjected to FGM. Each year about 3 million girls worldwide are at risk of this practice, which dates as far back as ancient Egypt. Different claims are made for it, but in cultures where it is prevalent, girls are not considered marriageable without it, and it is thought necessary for family honour, to prevent female ‘promiscuity’ and in order for families to receive the ‘proper bride price.’ Many suffer discrimination and pressure if they have not been ‘cut.’
FGM involves the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia and is normally carried out by women of the child’s family or community with no medical training, using crude implements and without pain relief. It can have very serious impacts including: severe bleeding, difficulty urinating, cysts and infections, childbirth complications, and heightened risk of maternal and newborn death. For many women there is ongoing suffering that can deeply affect their mental health. The World Health Organization estimates that ‘’the treatment of health complications of FGM in 27 high prevalence countries costs $1.4 billion US per year.’’
Kemi told her husband she wanted to take Iri for a two-week visit with friends in the United States for Christmas. Once they landed in New York City, they boarded the bus to Plattsburgh and from there shared a taxi to Roxham Road. As they stood waiting to cross into Canada, Kemi was shivering with the cold and very afraid of being arrested and sent back to Nigeria. But the RCMP officers were not hostile and even helped with her luggage.
After going through the preliminary process with Canadian immigration at the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle port of entry, Kemi and Iri stayed a month at the Montreal YMCA on Tupper Street, and then moved into a small apartment. Since Kemi had nothing to furnish it with, the landlord kindly waived the first month’s rent allowing Kemi to purchase basics like a fridge and stove. A local refugee support group helped with other needed household items, and it was through this group that we met Kemi. During her first year here, Kemi lived in fear that her husband might show up and take Iri back to Nigeria, where she would be forced to undergo FGM. Kemi was constantly looking over her shoulder and sleeping poorly. PRAIDA, a service for asylum seekers, referred her to a psychologist and this helped to stabilize her emotions. A lawyer helped her get a divorce which granted her custody of Iri. Since then, she has felt safer.
After taking a training course, Kemi started to work for an agency as a personal care assistant, and she recently started a new job in that field. So, she is one of our anges gardiens in the time of COVID-19. Iri is a very enthusiastic student who loves books and going to the library and dreams of becoming a pediatrician. However, Kemi and Iri still have no date for their refugee hearing and, nearly three years after arriving, it is a long and difficult wait. In Canada and other countries, the threat of FGM constitutes what is called ‘’Gender Based Persecution,’’ and I hope that Kemi and Iri will be recognized as refugees on this basis. They both have so much to offer their new country.
When I asked Kemi how she felt about coming to Canada she replied that it was a mixed bag. She has lost her job, family, friends and homeland, but she feels strongly that: “Going against a tradition that is cruel would have meant fighting a senseless battle with no chance of winning. Having to watch a child go through such pain and yet be helpless (to stop it), and the guilt I would feel for the rest of my life, would definitely have taken me over the edge.’’ And, although she has had to start over again from scratch to make a new life in Canada she says: “My joy is found in giving my child hope. I think I am living a good life. If I had to do it all over, for my child or any child, I would.’’
Wendy Ayotte is a member of Bridges Not Borders – Créons des ponts: www.bridgesnotborders.ca