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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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12 strategies to manage credit card payments and debt

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Today, almost everyone carries a credit card in their wallets. It is used to pay for almost everything from groceries to flight tickets to gas.

If managed properly, credit cards can be an essential financial tool that allows users to build credible credit, earn money back and gain great perks, like purchase protection and insurance. However, carrying a poor credit balance can plunge you into massive debt.

“Credit card debt is very high-interest debt, typically in the neighbourhood of 20% or more,” said Scott Hannah, president and CEO of Credit Counselling Society in a report.

If you have a balance payment on your credit card, clearing it off can be a difficult task if you’re a low-income earner—or you’ve already incurred too much debt that after using a credit card payment calculator you know you’ll be unable to pay back.

However, no matter how terrible you think your current situation is, there’s always a way out that works best for you. With interest on loans compounding everyday, there’s little wonder why clearing a credit card debt is so difficult. In fact, according to MNP, an accounting firm, nearly half of all Canadians are less than $200 per month away from becoming financially insolvent.

Tackling credit card debt can seem quite tedious, especially with many people choosing to ignore the problem and just keep making the minimum payment. Here are some practical strategies you can take advantage of to effectively tackle credit card debt.

1. Gain a complete understanding of your debt problem

This starting point for anyone trying to get out of debt is to understand why you’re in debt, in the first place.

Critically examine all areas of your finances to determine if your expenses don’t match your finances or if it was due to an unforeseen circumstance such as a medical emergency. Whatever the case may be, it is very important to know the reason why you are in so much debt so you can effectively tackle the root cause.

2. Look into your spending habits

Typically, one quick way to stop yourself from running into credit card debt is to examine your spending habits. What are the things you spend your credit card on? Are they essentials or things that can be easily done away with?

According to Hannah, most people can only account for about 75 to 80 per cent of their monthly expenditures and the remaining gets blurry. It is important to track your expenditure—whether it’s an extra shot of drinks at the bar or a box of cereal from the supermarket. Knowing what you spend money on allows you to build a better financial strategy against debt.

3. Build a budget

Once you have a clear picture of what your monthly expenses are, building a budget becomes the most important step towards managing your income better. Having one central location for tracking both your income and expenses is great in curtailing unnecessary spending and getting you out of debt.

Your budget needs to contain all of your expenses incorporated from essentials like groceries, mortgage, medical care and insurance to others such as utilities. While most people struggle to stick to their budget, you can create some margin for flexibility to make it easier for you.

4. Increase your minimum payment

For most credit cards, the minimum payment is approximately 2 per cent of the last month’s balance. But therein lies the problem because if you consistently pay only the minimum, then the lump of that money goes straight to your interest and not the principal.

Paying some extra money every month would go a long way in helping you clear your credit card debt faster and reduce the compounding interest.

5. Ask for a lower rate

It is very possible to negotiate for a lower rate with your bank; only thing is, most people tend not to do so. If you find yourself struggling with paying back your credit card debt, you can reach out to your lender and ask them to offer you a lower rate.

Long-time customers who have a history of making timely payments have more advantage with getting their request approved.

6. Take advantage of a balance transfer promotion

In a bid to entice new customers, lenders run promotions periodically on balance transfers for their credit cards. Basically, these offers involve having a low-interest rate between 0 to 2 per cent for a limited period—usually between 6 to 10 months.

Always be on the lookout for a lender that offers the lowest rates and longest promotional period, which would give you enough time to clear your debt.

7. Switch to a low-interest credit card

Once you have critically examined your spending habit and created a budget, yet it is obvious that you will always carry over a credit card balance, then it is time to switch to a low-interest credit card.

While these types of credit cards usually have little perks, they are quite useful in wiping a couple of percentage points off your interest. Typically, rates on low-interest credit cards vary but they could be as low as half the interest on a regular card.

8. Begin an avalanche

The avalanche method is great for those who have a lot of debt with several creditors. This method means you’d make the minimum payments on all your existing debts and then add any extra income to the debt that has the highest interest rate.

Using the avalanche method allows you to reduce the interest paid while clearing multiple debts.

9. Use the debt snowball approach

Another debt repayment strategy that you should consider is the debt snowball method. In this strategy, you would focus on paying off your small debt first before moving to the larger ones—all whilst still paying the minimum on all other debt—regardless of interest rate.

10. Get an extra income source

Creating additional streams of income goes a long way in helping you clear your credit card debt. By finding a better paying job or choosing a good side hustle, you can easily put down more money towards your debt repayment.

There’s a lot of gigs you can offer today to raise extra money such as writing, graphic design, proofreading, teaching and programming.

11. Use a personal loan

If your credit card balance is quite high, paying it off using a personal loan may be very advantageous. While the interest rates on credit cards can be as high as 29 per cent, with a good credit score you can qualify for a personal loan at a lower rate.

The main advantage of using this strategy is being able to pay off multiple credit card debts and focus on making single but fixed monthly payments on the remaining loan. Also, you spend lesser money on interest costs and repaying the loan in instalment would boost your credit score.

12. Spend more cash

Despite being very valuable items, credit cards can quickly run you into massive debt when not used properly. If you already have some debt yet to be paid, it is better to spend more cash than accumulate more debt on your credit card.

Get a low-interest credit card but only use it in emergencies once you know there isn’t enough money in your bank account to pay off the accumulated debt.

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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