By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As they wait in legal limbo, most of the deserters are able to work, pending the resolution of their cases. Landry is a computer technician. Key does welding. Johnson picks up carpentry projects, and before she had her third child, Rivera worked nights at a bakery. While they’ve developed friendships and see one another frequently, their uncertain future in Canada and inability to return to the United States present a range of challenges. Key and his wife have separated, and she has returned home with their four children. “It sucks,” he says, “but it’s kind of hard to tell your kids they can’t see their grandparents for four years.” Landry complains that he can’t keep a girlfriend because of the constant specter of deportation.
Many of the deserters are estranged from their families, who disapprove of their decision. Rivera says she hasn’t spoken to her mother since she left Texas. She and Mario checked their phone messages when they arrived in Ontario to hear her mother saying that if Rivera didn’t turn herself in, she’d call the police and report Mario for kidnapping Kim and the kids. According to Mario’s mother, Reyna, that’s just what she did. Rivera’s mother, Cathy Miller, didn’t return phone calls for this story, but Reyna says that for months she received calls from Mesquite investigators asking about Mario and a kidnapping allegation.
For Ryan Johnson, losing his family has been the hardest part of coming to Canada. His mother is so ashamed of her son that she tells friends he’s still serving in the Army and deployed overseas. “My grandfather died last year,” Johnson says. “He was one of the people who pretty much raised me, and he stopped talking to me because of the decision I made. A lot of my family has disowned me.”
Landry, over a glass of wine at a Toronto restaurant, says he was never especially close to his mother, but there are a lot of things he misses about home; he hopes to return. “I still have aspirations for running for political office,” he says. “That was part of the goal of joining the military, getting a foot in the door to the government setting. But yeah, it didn’t work.” A few minutes later, he spots an American $20 bill while a group of people pay for dinner and drinks. Landry’s eyes light up. “I love Andrew Jackson,” he says. “Old Hickory, he’s one of my favorite presidents.” Then he grows serious. “I’m homesick lately. I didn’t get to canvass during the election. I didn’t get to go to the Democratic National Convention. It’s kind of depressing.”
It’s nearing the end of“Let Them Stay Week,” and Rivera, Mario and their three children are being honored with a dinner at the pacifist Quaker House near the University of Toronto. While Mario holds their 2-month-old, Katie, in the living room of the cozy Victorian, Rivera sits around a wooden table with a dozen other people, eating stew, salad and scalloped potatoes. Nearby sits Naba Hamib, an Iraqi woman who used to teach at Baghdad University and is now seeking refugee status in Canada. An elegant woman wearing a pink sweater and large pearl earrings, Hamib hears Rivera is from Texas and explains that she’s involved in a number of women’s-rights organizations and was supposed to attend a conference in the Southern state. “I couldn’t go,” she says. “My visa expired, and my refugee status is pending.”
“I wanted to get involved in a refugee group here,” Rivera tells her. “But I didn’t know if I’d be accepted, you know, as someone who says, ‘I have trauma because I afflicted you.’ I just went and saw a counselor. As long as you keep talking about it, it’s not so bad.”
She’s quiet for a moment and seems to be lost in faraway thoughts. Earlier she’d mentioned that she still sees little girls who remind her of that 2-year-old Iraqi at the gate, but right now she recalls other incidents that continue to cloud her thoughts. “The soldiers went out on raids every night; the people didn’t have electricity; the markets were getting blown up every day.”
Hamib nods, her eyes brimming. “There was a raid in my neighborhood after I left,” she says. “They came to my house. My neighbor said nothing was disturbed, but I don’t know.” She asks where Rivera was stationed while in Iraq.
“When did you arrive there?”
“I was there October 2006 through January 2007.”