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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

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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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Anglais

‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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Anglais

MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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Anglais

Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar is the Latest to Hatch in West Island’s Bubbling Restaurant Scene

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Wings are the thing at the latest restaurant to make its mark on Montreal’s West Island: Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar.

At the buzzy new Dollard-Des Ormeaux eatery, the bird limbs come aplenty, with a menu listing eleven “wet & messy” wings, including smoked apple habanero, sriracha lime, and cherry cola BBQ; and four — cacio e pepe, ketchups chip, Nashville hot, and the garlicky, lemon pepper “vampire slayer” — dry rub flavours. They come 10 for $18 or 20 for $34, plus the option of ranch, parmesan, or blue cheese dipping sauce.

Tacos, nachos, poutines (one made with bone marrow, another with tater tots), smashed burgers, salads, and a classic buttermilk fried chicken dinner are just sampling of the other dishes that round out the offering. On the drinks side, there are cocktails, sangrias, and spiked milkshakes in popular chocolate bar flavours: After Eight, Skor, Bounty, or Reeses.

Opened on July 5, Birdhouse is among a recent influx of restaurants to grace the island’s western end, including birria taco slinger Tacos Don Rigo and barbecue joint Smoke Box — a double whammy in the same Pierrefonds area strip mall. That comes in addition to plans for Fairview Pointe Claire’s incoming “District Gourmand” (slated to usher in Tommy Café), and, of course, a number of the area’s longer-standing stalwarts — from southern belle Bistro Nolah to old-school casse-croûte Smoked Meat Pete — that have helped bolster the West Island’s culinary credentials.

The brand-new Brunswick Boulevard restaurant is the brainchild of Montreal entrepreneur Lorne Schwartz, restaurateur George Massouras (of Madisons and Arahova Souvlaki), and among the other partners involved, Brahm Mauer, son of the founder of beloved buffalo hot wings expert Wings ‘n’ Things. Mauer has tried his hand at reviving the original Wings ‘n’ Things recipe — the restaurant originally opened in 1986 — over the years, including with a Royalmount Avenue location in 2012, then as a roaming summertime food truck and NDG pop-up. That same truck has now been made over with a Birdhouse-branded livery to be deployed for private events.

A likely draw to many, Birdhouse is reprising the “famous flavours, untouched” of the once-upon-a-time NDG staple, represented on its menu as “The Legendary WNT Buffalo” chicken wing.

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