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GORDON: Syrian who entered Canada illegally says “compared to the U.S., it’s five star”

Syrian refugee in Toronto was living safely in Chicago for four year but came to Canada because “he wasn’t given anything from the U.S. government”

A Syrian man staying at a taxpayer-funded hotel in downtown Toronto was living safely in Chicago for four years, but told True North that he came to Canada because “the US is a disaster, they don’t help at all — nothing.”

The man and his family crossed the border illegally at Roxham Road in rural Quebec and made their way to Toronto, where, according to the man, they now receive “five star” treatment compared to when living in America.

He is staying at the Studio 6 hotel in downtown Toronto.

“They provide everything. It’s good. Compared to U.S., it’s five star,” he says of the hotel, which offers refugee claimants cleaning services, telephone, WiFi, cable, laundry machines and a monthly food allowance of $600 for his family. Hotel units also include kitchenettes.  

Refugee claimants mill in and out of Studio 6 hotel on a freezing Wednesday afternoon picking up their children from an elementary school less than a block away.

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“It’s the worst scenario… I mean, imagine, asking for a co-sign,” says the middle-aged Syrian man outside the hotel entrance smoking a cigarette and braving the minus 18 Celsius temperature without gloves and his coat undone at the top.

He explains the difficulties of finding a landlord willing to sign an apartment lease to refugee claimants.

“I don’t have. So I have to beg all people from [my] country, and hopefully someone — he have to have good credit and all this, which I have nobody here.”

“The standard is $2,000 [for rent], nothing less,” he says. “To be honest, if I have the chance to live and make some money, I have to be close to [Toronto]. Let’s say I go to London, should I find something there do you think? I’m not going to find nothing.”

Located in Little Italy, right next to ChinaTown in downtown Toronto, Studio 6 is on a rundown block surrounded by apartment complexes and dilapidated homes. Wander a few blocks in any direction, however, and you’ll find million dollar condos and some of Toronto’s most upscale and posh neighbourhoods.

This week, the National Bank of Canada put out a report saying it’s now cheaper to rent than buy in major Canadian cities like Toronto for the first time in years. A prime example of the out-of-control real estate prices can be found only 151 lots away from Studio 6, on 14 Grange Avenue, where a “tiny Toronto shack” covered in graffiti just went up for sale at a listing price of $2.5 million.

A steady stream of newcomers into the city ensures an insatiable demand for housing in Toronto. (Some real estate experts also believe money laundering from China and elsewhere is another contributing factor for the sky high prices in Vancouver and Toronto.)

Before coming to Canada five months ago, the Syrian man, his wife and two young children lived in Chicago for four years after fleeing the civil war ravaging his country and devastating  his former home city of Damascus. In Chicago, the man was an Uber driver but said living there was a constant struggle because they weren’t given anything from the U.S. government.

Eventually the man decided to take his family and illegally cross the border into Canada through Roxham Road, using the loophole that allows refugee claimant’s to bypass the safe third country agreement, which is supposed to force refugee claimants to make a claim and stay in the first safe country they enter.

Now, they’re living on the taxpayer’s dime — staying comfortably at the Studio 6 hotel for months at a time.

“We’re still negotiating an extension to this contact. The contract with the location started March 12, 2018,” says Toronto shelter support spokesperson Greg Seraganian about the deal between Studio 6 and the City, which is set to expire in March.

Studio 6 management didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The City is currently housing asylum seekers and local homeless in four Toronto hotels and an undisclosed number of motels.

True North reported two weeks ago that the Toronto Plaza Hotel and Radisson Hotel Toronto East were both closed to the public in order to help increase shelter space.

True North has now learned that North York’s Edward Hotel and downtown’s Studio 6 are also housing Toronto’s homeless and the burgeoning asylum-seeker population.

According to Studio 6 occupants interviewed by True North, more than half the guests at the hotel are asylum claimants — the majority coming from Nigeria.

“The City has always used motel beds as part of its shelter system,” says Greg Seraganian.

“More recently, the City added over 2,500 motel beds at its own cost to respond to this increased demand. From 2016 to the end of 2018, the City incurred over $65 million in costs to fund these additional beds.”

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On February 1, the Trudeau government announced Canadian taxpayers would contribute a fraction of the added costs incurred from the influx, pledging an additional $15 million over the $11 million pledged last year. In late January, the Trudeau government announced another $114 million to the provinces affected by the influx of asylum seekers.

Every day another 18 to 20 asylum seekers enter the Toronto shelter system.

“As of January 20, 2019, there were 2,541 refugee/asylum claimants in the shelter system (37% of the total). As of the same date, the number of refugee/asylum claimants in the motel/hotel shelter program was 1,886,” said Seraganian, who also emphasized that space is available for anyone looking to come inside.  

The Syrian man also discussed the problems he’s had finding a job in Canada.

“I got a workers permit, but how can you work at the time here? You need a fixed address first. And nobody will give you the damn things to move, unless you go to a super, super bad [place], maybe like basement. I can’t go basement, I have a son who has asthma, so he can’t live in basement,” says the Syrian man near the end of our conversation before he heads to pick up his daughter from junior kindergarten.

“It’s going to be hard in the beginning. We’re not lazy people.”

This is his last month — his family’s sixth month — at Studio 6 hotel before he and his family will be forced to move to another spot in the City’s overwhelmed shelter system.

The government lawyer he was provided with told him his refugee claim would be heard within six months, but the hearing has now been indefinitely delayed.

Back in Damascus he owned a printing house and was a graphic designer, but he believes he will only find work in his field in the GTA and wants to live in a neighbourhood with fellow Syrians.  

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Another refugee claimant standing outside of the Studio 6 who spoke to True North was 46 year-old Gustavo Hernandez, a Mexican who fled the city of Tabasco a few months ago. As reported exclusively by True North, he was one of the over 2,445 Mexicans that claimed asylum in the first 10 months of 2018 — a trend that has skyrocketed since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waived the visa requirement for Mexican visitors in 2016.

“We move to Hamilton next week, because it’s cheaper than Toronto,” says Hernandez.

He and his wife decided to flee to Canada after his family received death threats due to his father-in-law’s work as a journalist. He is a graphic designer and university professor, and his wife is a chef. He says a lot of refugee claimants refuse to move outside of the GTA, but that he doesn’t mind moving outside of Toronto because he was told he should be able to find work in Hamilton.  

Another Canadian man staying at Studio 6 also spoke to True North.

“I’ve been on the road for four years, I’m not used to all these kids,” says a construction project supervisor from Peterborough in his late fifties. “We’re on the road and in motels. They thought it would be a change [to stay in a hotel], but it kind of showed better [on the website] than it actually is.”

“Everyone is selling their houses here and buying [in Peterborough]. Our housing there was $200,000. Now it’s $500,000, almost $600,000 in [only] a few years.”

“Now that they’ve opened the doors to the refugees, Syrians, and it’s a big fight there right now because if a house comes up for rent, and people are looking for houses, and, you know, they fill out the application and everything else. And housing there is $1,600 to $2,000 … because of the colleges. And as soon as they see — they’ll give them to the refugees because they know the money is guaranteed right from the government.”             

“But there was actually a family busted [for fake refugee claims]. They had two brand new vehicles in the garage and everything else. And they had refugee status. Back home, from the corner of us.”

“It just leaves a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”

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