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This former taxi driver fled Honduras after gangs tried to take his life. Now in Canada, he says the ‘migrant caravan’ is misunderstood




VANCOUVER—Standing with a slouched posture, dressed in a black hoodie and jeans, he looks no different from anyone else in Surrey, B.C. — but nearly five years ago, this husband and father found himself stranded, beaten and alone in Mexico.

After a fraught journey from Honduras with his wife and son, where the family had been separated by Mexican authorities, the man was about to be put on a bus that would ship him back to the Honduran border — back to mortal danger — for the fourth time.

This Honduran migrant escaped gang violence in his home country before arriving in Canada as a refugee and finally settling in Vancouver. He still has family who have fled Honduras with the so-called migrant caravan hoping to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.
This Honduran migrant escaped gang violence in his home country before arriving in Canada as a refugee and finally settling in Vancouver. He still has family who have fled Honduras with the so-called migrant caravan hoping to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.  (Jesse Winter / StarMetro)

So he made a run for it.

With nothing but the clothes on his back, he ended up wandering through farming towns, where he talked to local families who showed him the way to the border.

“It was 10 days without any food, drinking water from those animal troughs,” the former refugee said. The migrant has been granted anonymity by StarMetro due to the risk that his remaining family in Honduras could be targeted.

Eventually, he made it into the U.S. and later journeyed to Canada, where he was reunited with his family and given refugee status. He’s now a construction worker in Surrey, B.C., with a side job driving a delivery truck.

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But his worries aren’t over. His brother, sister-in-law and several friends are back at the U.S.-Mexico border, part of the so-called “migrant caravan”: large groups of people travelling together to claim asylum. Several thousand more Central American migrants arrived at the border earlier this week in the midst of a government shutdown.

The mass of asylum seekers has been maligned by U.S. President Donald Trump and conservative media outlets as a mob attempting to bully its way to status in the U.S. But migrant advocates say the movement should be rightly considered an “exodus” of victims fleeing poverty and extreme violence in their home countries — and as the Honduran man knows, they are safer travelling in numbers than making the journey alone.

Less than a decade ago, he was trying to make it as a taxi driver in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. His wife’s job with the government paid little or sometimes not at all due to political instability. With her and a young son to think of, he took on many routes and even ran a delivery service.

Then the extortion began.

“It’s really difficult. When I talk about it I get chicken skin,” he told StarMetro.

“One of my taxis was on a specific route,” he explained, describing a path many taxis took between two popular points in the city. “One day this crew showed up. They said, ‘OK, if you guys want to continue working this specific point, you have to pay 400, 500 bucks every week, and if you don’t you’re going to get killed.’”

He said crime ran rampant in Honduras, suggesting police officers were co-operating with the gangs in their extortion schemes. There was little he could do to prevent the threats, despite filing multiple complaints with local police.

A report by the Immigration & Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) on a 2017 information-gathering mission to Honduras found high levels of criminal activity in the country and a “lack of police presence on the streets” in Tegucigalpa, specifically.

It said gang turf is “defined by … invisible borders” and that anyone attempting to cross those borders could be killed. The IRB report also found that the high price of extortion fees is one of the central reasons people are being displaced from their homes and neighbourhoods.

The former driver described how the gangs would employ innocent-looking decoys, such as pregnant women or senior citizens, to hail taxis and then direct them to locations where gang members would grab the car for their own purposes, like delivering drugs or weapons.

“They pulled me out of my car and put me into the trunk,” he said. “They drove around, they left the car whenever they felt like it. I was there for hours.”

"It was 10 days without any food, drinking water from those animal troughs," the former refugee said about his time in Mexico.
« It was 10 days without any food, drinking water from those animal troughs, » the former refugee said about his time in Mexico.  (Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver)

Luckily, someone walking by heard him and opened up the trunk. But after the first incident, it happened all over again: He was forced into the trunk and left there for hours until he could be rescued.

It happened “many more times,” he said — after five, he lost track — over the course of nearly six years as a taxi driver. Even so, he felt “lucky” that he wasn’t significantly hurt.

“There are many people killed that way,” he said. The IRB report found that gangs used women as “bait to kill targeted persons.”

The man tried to get into other types of work but had already been watched and targeted by the gangs, who were set on extorting him for money whenever he passed through their turf checkpoints. One day, he said, a gang member came to his house and fired bullets near his legs — a way to instill fear in him and other taxi drivers, and maintain control over the neighbourhood.

Finally, he took his family and fled to the Mexican border with less than $100 between them.

But his troubles were not over. After attempting to make an asylum claim in Mexico, the family was rejected and deported back to the Honduran border on buses filled with other hopeful refugees. Undeterred, the man and his family went back to Mexico — and were then deported by bus a second and finally a third time.

Byron Cruz, an organizer with migrant-rights organization Sanctuary Health in Vancouver, said the man’s story is not uncommon among migrants from Honduras and other countries in Central America.

“Ninety per cent of stories I hear from people coming from Honduras are like this,” he said. “Most people will think it’s like a movie.”

He said that gangs have “complete control,” and violence, kidnapping and extortion are common.

Jerry Flores, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said the man’s experience in Mexico was normal as well.

“It’s very typical for Central Americans to have to go through Mexico and to have to navigate life undocumented,” Flores said.

On their third attempt in 2013, the man said he was separated from his wife and son by Mexican authorities and targeted again by a Mexican gang for extortion. He said that, after being beaten near death and managing to escape, he started out on foot to the U.S. border in Arizona.

But with the ongoing detainment and deportation of migrants encouraged by Trump, the man didn’t feel safe in the U.S. and found it difficult to find work, often picking up recycling on the side of the road to exchange for small change.

While he had no direct communication with his wife and son, he heard from family members still in Honduras that they had made it into the U.S., up to Washington State and then into Canada. So he set off on the same journey in 2014.

Less than a month later, he walked across the Peace Arch park to get to Canada. That allowed him to exploit a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which compels asylum seekers in Canada or the U.S. to apply for status at the first port of entry of the first “safe” country they arrive at. By crossing over the park, he avoided going through U.S. or Canadian customs and was able to claim asylum in Canada.

The agreement has been widely criticized by migrant advocates, due to the differences in the way Canada and the U.S. handle asylum claims. A report from the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. in 2017 found that a majority of refugee claimants in the province had crossed over the Peace Arch border in the same way.

Now reunited with his wife and son and having recently obtained permanent resident status, the man still worries for family and friends who travelled with the new wave of migrants to the border and are stranded in Mexico, like he was. Every week or so, he gets a phone message from them, updating him on what’s happening at the border.

He said that with the levels of violence and poverty on the rise in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America, travelling with other migrants seems like the best option to many — something news stories don’t necessarily communicate.

“There is safety in numbers,” he said. “Some people might not want to go alone, but if there are lots of people with them then it is safer.”

He predicts more people will arrive in 2019, with many eventually claiming asylum in Canada due to the political climate in the United States.

Cruz said that there will “almost definitely” be more waves of migrants from Central America seeking asylum in Canada over the next several months.

But Cruz insists that the language around the “caravan” be changed in order to better communicate the purpose for their journey. On a recent trip to Toronto, he met with other representatives from migrant support organizations who agreed that the word “exodus” is more appropriate to the situation.

Migrants from poor Central American countries,  mostly Hondurans, moving towards the United States in hopes of a better life, are seen after arriving to Tijuana, Mexico.
Migrants from poor Central American countries, mostly Hondurans, moving towards the United States in hopes of a better life, are seen after arriving to Tijuana, Mexico.  (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/GETTY)

“Instead of calling it a caravan, we are calling it an exodus, because a caravan has a connotation of people who are coming happily,” he said. “But people have been pushed by extreme poverty and the environmental situation in the country.”

The conservative news media in the U.S. and comments from the American president have also contributed to widespread misunderstandings of why migrants have arrived en masse at the border, said Flores, the University of Toronto professor.

“The U.S. president has been arguing people coming to the border are gang members … These are alternative facts, if you will,” Flores told StarMetro.

He said right-wing media outlets are pushing the same narrative.

“There was this huge uproar from the U.S. media … framing them as criminals and terrorists,” Flores said.

What those stories miss is that there are few options for Honduran migrants at this point, he said. After a 2009 coup removed then-president Manuel Zelaya, the ruling party suspended a number of civil protections, leading to a rise in human-rights violations, according to the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.

Flores said such events have occurred throughout Central America over the past few decades, resulting in widespread political instability, poverty and violence.

He said that humanitarian outreach, instead of harsher border protection, would be a better way to address the issue. Instead of arms, the U.S. should focus on sending aid.

“For example, when there were stories of Donald Trump sending down 5,000 soldiers … they could have sent 5,000 troops to process applications instead,” Flores said, adding that special attention should be paid to people coming from marginalized groups, like LGBTQ people, who experience additional discrimination and violence.

Flores added that the United States’ involvement in the situation, by refusing to condemn the Honduran coup, adds to its responsibility.

In the meantime, the Honduran man keeps checking his phone, waiting for a call from his brother’s family. He’s hopeful that someone, somewhere, will come to help them.

“The Honduran government doesn’t take responsibility, Mexico doesn’t take responsibility, the U.S. doesn’t take responsibility … They are stuck there.”

Cherise Seucharan is a Vancouver-based reporter covering health and safety/youth. Follow her on Twitter: @CSeucharan

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A stunning Water Lantern Festival is coming to Montreal





What might just be the most magical night ever is coming up for Montreal this year.

The Water Lantern Festival has announced that it will be gracing Mississauga with thousands of floating lanterns later this year, as part of a celebration that spans the entire world.

According to the festival’s official website, the event is a celebration of life with proceeds going towards charities and non-profit organizations within the area.

“Water Lantern Festival brings together individuals from all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life to join in one emotional and memorable night. At the Water Lantern Festival, we cherish these moments and will do our best to help you have a memorable experience that you’ll never forget as you witness the beauty of thousands of lanterns reflecting upon the water,” the website states.

The festival takes place throughout multiple cities around the world, with the Canadian cities of Quebec, Regina, Vancouver, Hamilton, Calgary, Ottawa, Mississauga, and, of course, Montreal taking part.

For the Calgary event, a date has been confirmed and tickets are already rolling out. Montreal shan’t be far behind, and you can click the Notify Me tab on the event’s site to be kept in the loop.

Expect an evening filled with food trucks, music, lantern designing and finally, a magical launch of the lanterns into the water as the sun goes down.

For our pals over in Calgary, their event includes a floating lantern, a commemorative drawstring bag, a marker, and a wristband. Expect something similar, if not the same, when more details float through about Montreal’s event.

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Euthanasia order on hold for Montreal dog that attacked children





A pit bull dog that attacked four children and two adults in August 2018 in Montreal North will not be euthanized in the immediate future.

The euthanasia order has been temporarily suspended pending the appeal of a Quebec Superior Court decision.

On Tuesday, Judge Lukasz Granosik rejected a request to halt the euthanasia order issued by the Montreal North borough, which declared the animal a “dangerous dog.”

The City of Montreal has not changed its mind. This is only a delay before it proceeds with euthanizing the dog, a source told the Canadian Press.

Shotta, the one-year-old dog, was in the care of its owner’s acquaintance in August 2018. The dog attacked four children and two adults, causing serious injuries in separate incidents on the same day.

After the attacks, the dog was taken from the home and entrusted to the SPCA.

WATCH: Dog found dead in Angrignon Park

The Road to Home Rescue Support, an American shelter, asked the court if it could take in the dog. Christa Frineau, the dog’s owner, had also asked that Shotta not be euthanized.

Granosik refused to grant the request.

—With files from Global’s Kalina Laframboise

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9 Things To Do In Montreal This Friday, Saturday & Sunday





Today’s sunny skies have me itching to make weekend plans. I absolutely cannot wait to make the most of this warmer weather. This might be the time to inflate my bike tires and dust off my running shoes…

Whether you want to brush up on your cooking skills, let loose, or fill your stomach with amazing food, there’s an event out there for you. Read on for 9 fun things you can do with friends or a fling this weekend.

TL;DR Read on for 9 fun things you can do in Montreal this weekend.

Let Yourself Go At Dress Up

Where: 185 Avenue Van Horne, Montréal.

When: Friday, March 29, 9:00 p.m.

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