Stunned faces and heartbreak for migrants heading to Roxham as they learn Canada will likely send them back
At 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, two buses from New York City arrived at a gas station in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where groups of migrants carrying luggage and determined to cross into Canada disembarked with no knowledge of the closure of Roxham Road.
Their faces were stunned as two taxi drivers, who had shown up only to give them the news, told them they could not drive them there.
They were four hours too late. They had boarded the buses unaware that by the time they arrived in the town of Plattsburgh, 30 km from the illegal border crossing, they wouldn't be able to walk in the footsteps of the nearly 50,000 migrants who made it over in the last year and a half.
The temperature was –4 C and several of the migrants wore only hoodies. They shivered and looked at each other in disbelief, pleading with the drivers to take them to Roxham Road anyway. The drivers said a United States government directive had come down that they were not to drive them to the illegal crossing after midnight.
Olivier Nanfah, a 42-year-old Cameroonian man, said he had spent his entire savings crossing more than a dozen countries to flee persecution, then trying to find work in the U.S. before he decided to try his luck in Canada, only to be told his last hope, Roxham Road, was closed.
"It's awful. I have nowhere else to go," he said.
Nanfah and a dozen other migrants from countries including Ecuador, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo gathered in another gas station next door to warm up and try to understand their predicament.
Eventually, at around 6 a.m., some taxi drivers agreed to take most of the migrants who arrived by bus to Roxham. Nanfah and several others crossed Saturday morning, but, according to the details of the modified Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), announced Friday, they could be brought back to the U.S.
Nanfah said he wanted his story to be told so people could understand the hardships asylum seekers crossing at Roxham have faced.
After Nanfah's father was killed in a nearby village, he said it became clear he and his family would be targeted. Nanfah walked from Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea in two weeks, then got a visa to fly to Brazil. He then made his way north on foot and by bus to the United States. He crossed the Darien jungle, where three of the 25 people in his group died because of how taxing the trek was.
"I saw people die in front of me," Nanfah said, people who were younger than him — 28, 35, around those ages, he said.
His wife and 11 kids are home in Cameroon, hoping they can come join him once he finds a safe place for them all. The couple's eldest, a daughter, is 18, their youngest: twins barely a year old.
Nanfah hasn't seen them in nearly two years.
"No one should have to not see their family like this, no one," he said.
The last hours of Roxham Road
Earlier in the evening, shortly after the changes to STCA were announced and scheduled to take effect at midnight, Roxham Road was quiet.
Groups of people continued to arrive as they had for the past weeks, months and years. Few knew then that the crossing would be barred off by midnight and how lucky they were to arrive when they did.
At 6 p.m., a black SUV with New Jersey plates came speeding down Roxham Road on the United States side of the border. A group of 11 Turkish men got out and rushed down the dirt path where an RCMP officer informed them they would be arrested for crossing illegally. They nodded and were led to a ramp outside a warehouse building where they'd be processed before being driven to a shelter by bus.
WATCH | What awaits migrants at the Canadian border?
A man named Kenny Gas, a mechanic and Uber driver who lives on Staten Island, had driven them from an airport outside of New York City.
"It's not right, what they do," Gas said of the deal between Canada and the U.S. to effectively close the popular illegal border crossing for migrants south of Montreal.
Originally from Turkey, Gas has been driving Turkish migrants to Roxham Road from New York, who hear about him through word of mouth.
"They spent all that money to get here. Now, all of a sudden they're closing their doors," he said.
After that, the trickle of cars became a stream. People from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Botswana, Malaysia, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Colombia and Haiti — families, single men, mothers alone with their young children.
One woman, Pamela Memengi Maiala, arrived carrying her four-month-old baby in a car seat and her five-year-old, Jefte, at her side. Jefte waited with the baby as she went to get their roughly 10 suitcases and bags.
Several people scrambled to help carry them the rest of the way, but once she got to the little dirt path, Maiala stopped.
One group of migrants passed her by, walking onto the path without hesitating, but Maiala stayed put with the baby and Jefte at her feet. She didn't move forward for about 30 minutes. She stared at the RCMP agent on the other side, at the people waiting outside to be processed, rubbed Jefte's back and adjusted his jacket hood. Every once in a while she drew deep sighs, answered questions from journalists, but her expression stayed the same — as if playing back her and her children's journey up to this point.
Maiala's responses were brief. She spoke a bit of French and some Portuguese she had picked up in Brazil, the first country she and Jefte landed in on Oct. 23, 2021. Her first language is Lingala. The baby was born on their way north and she became sick from the pregnancy, she said. When she heard the path to Canada would be closing, she decided to pack up and make it in time for the deadline. Arriving was a relief, she said. At around 11:20 p.m., she picked up her things, her baby, joined a large group on the path and walked across.
Mahamed Yusef Niazi was carrying his seven-month-old daughter Sahaba, when he and his wife Taiba Nuri got out of a black van at the end of Roxham Road.
Niazi was smiling.
"I feel better in Canada," he said, steps away from entering the country.
He explained that he and Nuri left Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country. The couple first travelled to Iran, then back to Afghanistan, then to Pakistan, Brazil, through South America to Mexico and then the U.S. And at 9:02 p.m. Friday, they walked into Canada.
At midnight, two RCMP officers took the wrapping off of a new sign that said, "Stop. Do not cross. It is illegal to enter Canada from here. You will be arrested and may be returned to the United States."
A van from Warwick, N.J., carrying six Haitian nationals pulled up a few minutes late. For a while, it wasn't clear if the group would be let in. They were made to wait outside for about 30 minutes, before finally being let inside. One man from Pakistan showed up an hour later and a small group at 3:15 a.m., who were also let inside.
RCMP officers present would not say whether those people would be sent back to the United States after being processed in the warehouse.
Tyler Provost, a taxi driver from Plattsburgh, made two trips to the Roxham crossing Friday night. He shook his head opening the trunk of his van.
Provost said cab drivers had been given a directive from the U.S. government to stop driving migrants to Roxham after midnight.
"A lot of people have called us already crying and saying they can't get here 'til, like, the 27th and stuff. So it's just going to ruin a lot of people's lives. It's not. It's not going to help," he said.