WHALLONSBURG — Some refugees have come from as far away as California.
At the north end of Roxham Road, where those seeking new lives cross into Canada on foot, Janet McFetridge met a doctor and his family from El Salvador.
In another case, the Champlain woman told the audience at a recent event at the Whallonsburg Grange, the children were dressed in party clothes but had no coats to protect them from the 15-degree temperatures.
Often the adults cannot speak English, but McFetridge and other Plattsburgh Cares members communicate through the children.
“At times, they would just exchange a look or handshake to give their thanks,” she said.
McFetridge spoke after a screening of the PBS News Hour Weekend documentary, “Roxham Road Asylum Seekers,” which depicts the interactions at the unofficial crossing point where thousands of immigrants have entered Canada in the past year or so.
A loophole in the Canada-U.S. Safe Country Agreement lets them in and allows their cases to be heard if they enter at points other than an official port. In recent months, some factions in Canada have protested the process and have even directed their anger at groups such as Plattsburgh Cares.
The film shows Americans such as McFetridge providing warm clothing on the U.S. side, and then the immigrants being taken into custody by the Canadians.
Many were homeless in the United States, and as one asylum seeker put it, “I would have died on the streets.”
McFetridge, a retired French teacher, said one of the organization’s primary goals during the colder months has been to keep those crossing the border warm.
“Many come ill-prepared and are stranded without hats and coats,”she said.
She presented an analogy of the present pilgrimage to the Underground Railroad. In fact, her home is believed to have housed former slaves attempting to cross into Canada.
“This was close to my house in Champlain, and so I felt I had to do something,” McFetridge said.
Can’t go back
The asylum seekers often travel by bus to Plattsburgh and then take taxis to Roxham Road.
Plattsburgh Cares volunteers may meet them at the station to assure they will receive safe transportation.
Due to insurance constrictions, the volunteers cannot utilize their personal vehicles.
Refugees have to carry all their possessions and cannot go back if they forget or drop something.
In many instances the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who meet them as they cross “show some compassion,” McFetridge said.
However, there is trepidation, and she has seen fear in the eyes of the travelers. One teen asked if she would be shot if she crossed.
“There were episodes that were difficult and emotional to watch,” she said. “There are tales of woe and tales of joy.
“They are looking for safety and the opportunity to survive. The ties that bind us are stronger than the differences.”
The event at the Grange was put on by Adirondack Friends of Refugees & Immigrants, and member Bob Harsh introduced McFetridge.
“We have been seeing images of heartbreak and tragedy for immigrants not just here but in other lands,” he said.
“There are images of infants and detention. How can we be a nation of immigrants that rejects others?”
Harsh suggested writing elected officials to encourage change.
Plattsburgh Cares does not need donations of clothing at present but monetary donations can be made through the group’s website.
To learn more or to contribute, go to plattsburghcares.org.