B.C. Muslim women's shelter becomes asylum haven for U.S. border crossers

A transitional home for Muslim women fleeing domestic violence in B.C. has become a refugee haven as dozens of women and children who have walked across the U.S. border since November's presidential election seek refuge in Canada.

"They come here because they have no option — the last option they have is to come here," said Yasmine Yousef, a social worker at Nisa Homes in Surrey.

The transitional home opened just over two years ago. But now the home used for women seeking shelter from domestic abuse has become a sanctuary for those who fear that the U.S. under President Donald Trump is not safe for them.

All the refugee claimants are women and children. Not long after the November 2016 U.S. election, staff at the Surrey facility said they helped their first Muslim asylum seeker from the U.S.

'Terrified' to stay in U.S.

Many of the asylum seekers are referred to Nisa Homes by refugee agencies or police services in the Lower Mainland.

A lot of them are coming from different countries," said Yousef. "They have access to come to the U.S. whether they have a visa to the U.S. or some sort of status. But when they get there, obviously with the hype around the president, they were terrified of staying there."

Across the country, the number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada has increased following a crackdown by Trump on illegal immigrants, migrants and refugees.

This year alone, 201 asylum seekers were intercepted in British Columbia by the RCMP. In March, across the country, officers arrested 887 people entering Canada from outside an official port of entry, up from the two previous months, bringing the total to 1,860 so far this year.

In Surrey, Yousef said the home has received about 25 to 30 women and children who are refugee claimants.

"That has been very eye-opening for us because we had no idea what a refugee claimant was [before this]," Yousef said.

Afghan crossed border

An Afghan citizen who walked over the U.S. border into B.C. in December, spent three months at Nisa Homes before she made a successful refugee claim in Canada.

CBC News is concealing her identity because she fled an abusive relationship and fears for her safety.

The Afghan woman had a one-year visa to visit her husband who was living in the U.S. But she feared for her safety with an abusive husband, and after Trump's election, she did not feel safe in the U.S.

"The first week I came here it was scary and disappointing because I was shocked at being detained, but now I'm happy that I not only saved my life from being killed … but I feel like I came to one of the best places on Earth," she said in an interview at the home.

According to the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., which provides assistance to new arrivals to Canada, 420 people applied for refugee status in B.C. in the first three months of the year.

Asylum influx

The society's executive director, Chris Friesen, said it has turned to shelters like the Surrey facility to help house those asylum seekers.

"When they arrive across the border they are not eligible for up to two months before they can access hardship allowance through the government, so they're on their own," said Friesen.

"On the housing and service side there is a growing demand for services and a lack of services in place."

According to the society, 80 per cent of the recent asylum claims are from people who crossed the U.S. border by foot.

Yousef said the influx of refugee claimants from the U.S. over the last six months has stretched the resources of the privately funded transitional home.

"These women are coming, they have no idea what Canada is like. It's a huge culture shock for them," said Yousef.

"They don't speak the language, they don't know where to go. They literally will grasp at any support they can find."

The home — which has a wait list of more than three families at any given time — needs volunteers who can speak Arabic and Farsi.