Gimme Shelter: U.S. Military Deserters Once Again Flock to Canada to Avoid Iraq War
Ian WillmsRyan Johnson, a deserter from Central California formerly stationed at Fort Irwin, rallies at a War Resisters Support Campaign demonstration at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Just 5 feet tall, with a baby strapped to her chest and a soft, faltering voice, Kim Rivera is anything but soldierly. Yet, two years ago she was a private in the “War on Terror,” guarding a gate with an M4 rifle and frisking Iraqi civilians at a base in eastern Baghdad.
Now, on a Wednesday evening in January, the 26-year-old mother of three stands in a room in frigid, snow-covered Toronto. Her fair-skinned face and round blue eyes are framed by auburn hair pulled back in a low ponytail, and she places a hand on her bundled baby as she faces about 100 people seated in folding chairs in the middle-class apartment building’s community room.
Rivera clears her throat and unfolds a sheet of paper.
“I was fighting your kind for killing my kind,” she begins, reading a poem she wrote last summer and dedicated to the people of Iraq. “I was fighting for your liberty; I was fighting for peace.” She pauses and takes a deep breath. “But in reality, I was fighting to destroy everything you know and love.”
The audience listens in silence. Some nod. A few wipe tears from their eyes. They are peace activists and professors, fellow American Iraq War deserters in their 20s and American hippies in their 60s, Vietnam draft dodgers and Canadian mothers.
They’re all rooting for Rivera, red state–warrior-turned-peacenik deserter. They’re hoping and praying that by some lucky chance or the benevolent hand of a politician or judge, the young mother will escape the deportation order that has been issued here and the court martial that awaits back home.
Three years ago, before Iraq and Canada, Rivera’s dreams of going to college and starting a career had faded. She’d spent five years working at Wal-Mart in her hometown of Mesquite, Texas, met her husband in the store’s food court and had her first two children. After several years of living with relatives and struggling to save for their own apartment, Rivera saw the Army as the only way out. Through the military, she could make more than $10.50 an hour, plus get health insurance and higher education. And since she and her husband were both overweight and she was certain that she could shed the necessary pounds faster than he could, she began talking to recruiters.
She enlisted in early 2006. When she signed the contract, she thought of the war in Iraq as a remote and necessary evil. She was raised to praise the Lord and praise her country, and if that meant ridding the world of terrorists while allowing her and her family to get ahead, so be it. Yet after three desolate months in Iraq, consumed by homesickness, missing her children and disgusted by what she saw of the war, she deserted while on leave in 2007 and fled with her family to Canada.
Like her decision to enlist, that gamble hasn’t paid off the way she’d hoped. The Canadian government ordered Rivera to leave the country by January 27, or be deported to the United States, where there’s a warrant for her arrest. Desertion, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, carries penalties of up to five years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and, in wartime, a potential death sentence.
As the first known female soldier to walk away from the war in Iraq and fight for residency in Canada, Rivera has become a poster girl for a new generation of war deserters and, in particular, the small colony of American deserters living in Toronto and hoping they’ll be able to stay there.
More than 15,000 soldiers have deserted the Army since 2003, and most are thought to be living in the United States, keeping a low profile and trying to avoid a traffic ticket or anything else that would alert authorities to their presence. Army spokesmen stress that only 1 percent of all soldiers desert and that the problem is not large enough to warrant pursuing them for prosecution. Nevertheless, while desertion rates have held steady since the late ’90s, military records show a crackdown on deserters since the war in Iraq began. In both 2001 and 2007, for instance, roughly 4,500 soldiers deserted in each of those years. But in 2001, only 29 deserters were convicted; in 2007, that figure was 108.
The War Resisters Support Campaign estimates that several hundred deserters are living in Canada. Of those, around 40 have come forward to file asylum claims. The others, living under the radar without legal status and likely waiting to see how their peers’ cases pan out, have little to buoy their hopes. While an estimated 25,000 draft dodgers and deserters migrated from the United States to Canada during the Vietnam War, the notion that Canada will absorb today’s deserters as it did their predecessors is dead wrong. The Canadian government — led by conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper — has so far rejected all of the deserters’ requests, and the soldiers referred to as “war resisters” by their supporters are awaiting review from the country’s federal courts to determine their fate. As the cases make their way through the Canadian court system, Rivera is among the first wave to face impending deportation, and a host of others is expected to follow in the coming months.
The case of Robin Long, a soldier from Boise, Idaho, who last summer became the first deserter to be deported from Canada, provides a preview of what lies aheaad for deserters upon their return home. Long was handed over to officials at Fort Carson, Colorado, last August, pleaded guilty to desertion and is serving a 15-month prison sentence at Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, near San Diego. More recently, Cliff Cornell, a deserter from Arkansas, who has lived in British Columbia since leaving his unit four years ago, when he was ordered to Iraq, opted to return to the United States in February after exhausting his legal options. He was arrested by American border agents and sent to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to face charges. Meanwhile, former Cleveland, Ohio, soldier Andre Shepherd went AWOL from his base in Germany and is requesting political asylum from German authorities. His case will test a 2004 European Union measure that requires member countries to grant asylum to soldiers resisting unlawful wars and, if it succeeds, will likely result in a flood of American deserters arriving in Germany.
As the community of war resisters in Toronto braces for legal blows, deserters from California, Connecticut, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and New Jersey continue to rely on the help of Canadian antiwar activists and American Vietnam-era draft dodgers. The War Resisters Support Campaign, led by New York–born Vietnam deserter Lee Zaslofsky, organized tonight’s rally for Rivera and two other Toronto resisters facing deportation. A member of parliament, as well as a local city councilman and various deserters and activists, are here to speak. All watch, silent, as Rivera attempts to describe the emotional and philosophical about-face that led her to abandon her unit and flee to Canada. It’s an internal sea change she often finds difficult to articulate. So tonight, less than a week before Rivera’s scheduled deportation date, she relies on the last stanzas of her poem.
“I was becoming something that wasn’t me, that I didn’t stand for as a person,” she says, choking up. Then she makes a plea: “Canada, I am here. Will you take the time and the heart to understand what I am now fighting for, with words and not a gun?”
In October 2006, Private First Class Rivera deployed to Iraq with the 704th Support Battalion out of Fort Carson. She arrived at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad to find a different war from the one she expected. Instead of driving a truck, she was guarding a gate. Instead of doing “lots of rebuilding,” as she’d thought the Army would be doing, most of the troops seemed to be dedicating their time to raids on civilian homes. She didn’t like the way a lot of guys acted when they returned from patrol. “We tore their house up!” she recalls one soldier saying, jocular and triumphant. She observed that he seemed pretty happy about it. “Hell fuckin’ yeah!” he replied. “They prolly killed my buddy.” Rivera began to imagine what it would be like if foreign soldiers broke into her apartment in the middle of the night and dragged her and her husband, Mario, out of bed in front of their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She also disliked the fact that “Hajji” was her unit’s preferred term for Iraqis. She didn’t know the word was a title for a Muslim who’d made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; all she knew was that the way they said it made it sound just as mean as “sand nigger.”
At the same time, Rivera missed her husband and children more than she ever thought she would. She had always loved them, but one of the things that gnawed at her was that on some level, her decision to enlist — even if it meant going to an unknown and dangerous place — stemmed from a desire to escape her family situation.
She and Mario’s money crunch had forced them to shuttle between their parents’ homes in Mesquite while trying to save for their own place. This made for friction. Rivera felt that her mother — an insurance agent who became the sole breadwinner when Rivera’s father was hurt at his munitions-factory job — resented her and felt burdened by the young family. To make matters worse, tension developed between her mother and Mario. Rivera, who is Anglo but took her husband’s surname, was convinced that her mother refused to accept Mario because he’s the son of first-generation Mexican and Honduran immigrants.
As she worried about money and became exhausted juggling work and kids and family feuds, Rivera grew increasingly stressed. The more frustrated she became, the more frequently she became enraged at her husband. If he was working, she felt unsupported at home. When he took time off to be with her and the kids, she grew angry because he wasn’t making more money. But when she lost her temper, he’d just stare straight ahead and refuse to fight, which fueled her fury. She’d hurl a shoe or two at his head or fling a radio out the window.
At FOB Loyalty, when Rivera recalled those heated moments, she felt horrible and missed her family even more. She got in trouble with her commanders for spending an excessive amount of time talking to Mario on the phone, though one night the habit may have saved her life. One mortar explosion after another rocked the base while she was talking to her husband. When she returned to her bunk, a sizable piece of shrapnel lay on her pillow.
The final turning point came one day in December. An Iraqi man walked through the gate with a little girl, and Rivera moved to frisk them. She assumed the man was coming to file a claim for reparations in exchange for damage caused by American forces. Rivera stopped dead when she turned to the girl. The child looked to be the same age as her daughter, Rebecca. The toddler screamed and wailed inconsolably, her cheeks streaked with tears. Rivera felt sickened by the girl’s cries and wondered what had happened to her and why her mother wasn’t there. Long after the pair had disappeared, Rivera couldn’t stop thinking about them. Seeing the Iraqi child weeping was a watershed moment for her. From then on, she couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was wrong. The bloodshed. The loss. The fact that her children were on the other side of the world, learning and saying and doing new things each day, which she was missing and would never be able to recapture.
Rivera returned home in January for two weeks’ leave, and she and Mario took the kids to Texas to visit their families.Rivera had trouble sleeping. Every time a car door slammed, she’d flatten herself onto the floor. Her mother-in-law, Reyna Rivera, recalls her having panic attacks and crying on the floor, begging God for a way to avoid another stint in Iraq. “She wasn’t stable enough to handle that, and she shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” Reyna says. “To think of her going back — my God.”
Mario, searching for options online, came across the Web site for the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto. He called Zaslofsky, the coordinator, who told him the organization would help provide legal aid and temporary housing. At first, the idea struck Rivera as ridiculous. They didn’t know a soul in Canada. At the same time, she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to Iraq. Deliberating and praying over where to go and how to hide, she let pass her scheduled flight date out of the United States. She knew that 30 days after going AWOL she’d be listed as a deserter, the authorities at Fort Carson would alert law enforcement, and a warrant would likely be issued for her arrest. Rivera didn’t want to live as a wanted criminal in her own country, so Canada began to look like a better option. While her commanders searched for her by calling relatives and leaving messages on her phone, recommending that she return within the month if she wanted to receive more lenient punishment, she and Mario loaded the kids into their Geo Prism and drove north. On February 18, 2007, they reached Niagara Falls and drove over the Rainbow Bridge. It was a gray, dreary day as they made their way across the river gorge. Dark storm clouds gathered behind them, but as they emerged on the other side of the bridge in Ontario, the sun came out. Rivera took it as a sign that they had done the right thing.
It’s late January, and the past few days have brought grim news to Zaslofsky’s small office on the fourth floor of a brick building that houses unions and peace organizations. Along with Rivera, two other deserters living in Toronto have been denied residency and are scheduled to be deported by the end of the month. To add insult to injury, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was quoted on the news, complaining that the “bogus refugee claimants” were clogging up the courts with futile petitions. Zaslofsky’s group has declared the last stretch of January “Let Them Stay Week” and is holding nightly rallies and advocacy events, as well as pushing around-the-clock phone calls to the immigration ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, requesting that the government reconsider its view that desertion does not merit shelter in Canada.
On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustachioed 60-something with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One, an image of a soldier with his back turned, reads, “Stop the deportations now” and “War resisters welcome here.” Another advises, “Cut and run. In an immoral war, it’s the thing to do.” Amid the fliers are several photographs. One shows Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper from South Dakota, who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. In 2004, after eight months in Afghanistan and with orders to deploy to Iraq, Hinzman fled north with his wife and 1-year-old son to become the first deserter of his generation to seek political refuge in Canada. Nearby is a picture of Joshua Key, a welder and father of four from Oklahoma, who served seven months in Iraq with the 43rd Combat Engineer Company and deserted in 2004. A photograph of a smiling Robin Long before he was deported and imprisoned serves as a sobering reminder of what’s at stake.
The deserters have become a tight-knit community, enjoying weekly dinners at a Chinese restaurant near the office, keeping tabs on one another’s court cases and celebrating the babies born to resisters and their spouses. To Zaslofsky, the young men and women have become his surrogate children, and he doesn’t want any of them jailed. Hunched at his computer, he reads a recent e-mail from a soldier at Fort Knox.
“I’ve been having some problems with what my military does and while I’ve put in for conscientious-objector status, it will most likely get denied, leaving me in a real bad spot,” the soldier writes. “I believe what the Army does is to commit murder ... unfortunately, the Army treats anyone with my feelings poorly. I can’t talk to my buddies because, well, simply put, they hate me for what I’m trying to do. I was wondering what the process of political refuge entails and whether it’s advisable to do this.”
Given the grim political climate, what will Zaslofsky tell the man?
“I’ll advise him to call,” he says. “You never give up hope. We’re not discouraged; we’re angry.” Indeed, as he speaks, his face grows red and defiant. “We have a Rush Limbaugh government here — this isn’t how Canada is supposed to be.”
The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He reported for basic training but was disturbed by the stories soldiers returning from Southeast Asia told. When news of the My Lai massacre broke, Zaslofsky asked his sergeant major for an explanation of the mayhem that had led American soldiers to slaughter more than 300 unarmed civilians and toss them into a mass grave. “In war, bad things happen,” he recalls the man telling him. “I asked myself, ‘If I were in a situation like that, would I be the heroic guy who says, ‘Hey stop, this is terrible,’ or would I join in because I was experiencing the same rage and frustration they were?’ I felt I couldn’t be sure.” When he received orders to go to Vietnam, he filed for conscientious-objector status but was denied. In January 1970, he drove into Canada. While President Nixon struggled to keep a lid on the antiwar protests roiling the States, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was welcoming America’s deserters by the thousands.
It’s unclear whether today’s deserters will be affected by the fact that America now has a president who campaigned on his conviction that the Iraq War was illegal, which is precisely the refrain of most war resisters, many of whom volunteered to go to Afghanistan but refused to serve in Iraq. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, who has been active in the peace movement, says President Obama is unlikely to make war deserters much of a priority in the near future. “I can’t imagine he’d consider amnesty or anything until the war has wound down sometime in his second term,” Zunes says. Even if Obama agrees with the resisters about the unfounded case for war in Iraq, he’s still the commander in chief, and it remains a crime to desert one’s comrades in a time of war.
Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, emphasizes that desertion constitutes a punishable crime for good reason. “AWOL and desertion are crimes that in a time of war put other soldiers’ lives at risk,” he says. “Not only do these crimes go against Army values, they degrade unit readiness.”
Hall questions why soldiers would enlist and only later, once receiving orders to deploy, change their minds and cite political or philosophical reasons for deserting. The fact that large numbers of Americans fleeing the war in Vietnam — 33,000 in 1971 alone — were running from a compulsory draft, while today’s deserters are turning from the consequences of their own choices, has earned these new deserters a scarlet letter in the minds of many Americans. Rivera has been called a “parasite” and a “traitor” in comments posted to her blog, and Zaslofsky says he frequently receives letters from across the United States which not only call the recent deserters “pussies” and cowards who abandoned their brothers in arms but also fools who enlisted deliberately only to shirk their duty.
Yet Zunes and other sociologists point out that unlike the draft dodgers and resisters who fled north decades ago, many of whom were well-educated and had been able to put off the draft for several years by attending college, most recent deserters come from impoverished backgrounds and joined the military because it was the only way they could get an education and an above-minimum-wage job.
“What we’re looking at now is a poverty draft,” Zunes says, “a lot of people from rural areas or inner cities, who simply don’t have job opportunities or money for college — and the Army promises that.”
Unlike their counterparts during Vietnam, who were often politically liberal and opposed the war to begin with, many of today’s resisters were raised in conservative swaths of rural America. The majority of the dozen or so young resisters at the Toronto rally, for example, began their journeys as eager, patriotic recruits, only to undergo wrenching changes of heart after landing in a foreign city they’d hardly imagined, much less considered inhabiting.
Take Joshua Key, who grew up in a trailer in the tiny town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. A burly welder with tattooed arms, Key, 30, grew up admiring his grandfather who’d fought in the Korean War. By age 12, he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and 10 years later he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and two children on his earnings from KFC. A country boy who recalls his wife saying, “You get ’em, Josh, before they get you. Even if it’s a kid. They’re terrorists, too,” Key never dreamed that after a tour in Iraq he’d be living in self-imposed exile, the author of a book titled The Deserter’s Tale.
Ryan Johnson, a slight, bearded 25-year-old from California’s Central Valley, who looks more like an organic farmer than a soldier, says he enlisted because he was tired of working factory jobs at places like Frito-Lay and couldn’t afford college. His mother, a homemaker, and his stepfather, a UPS driver, kept yellow-ribbon bumper stickers on their cars and voted Republican.
Dale Landry, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area, who deserted in 2007 after getting orders to Iraq, joined the Air Force during his senior year of high school. Service would not only enable him to go to college, but he also figured the military could be a good path out of low-income, red-state America and into a career in Democratic politics. His mother was a waitress who raised him alone except for a series of husbands who came and went, and he wanted his life to look as different from hers as possible. It does, but he couldn’t have predicted that would mean watching from Canada as the first Democrat to win the presidency since Landry was 11 years old took the oath of office.
Another difference in this generation of deserters seems to be their level of combat experience. John Hagan, a sociologist at Northwestern University and the author of Northern Passage, a book about the migration of Americans to Canada during Vietnam, says 80 percent of the 25,000 draft-age men who fled to Canada bailed after receiving draft notices and never actually fought. Now, while Army spokesman Hall maintains that most deserters are junior troops who leave their units early in their military careers for personal, not moral or philosophical reasons, the Toronto deserters don’t fit that description. Most served for at least two years. Patrick Hart, a former sergeant from New York, who served with the 101st Airborne Division, was an active-duty soldier for nearly 10 years and did one tour in Iraq, while Dean Walcott, of Connecticut, served in the Marine Corps for nearly five years and did two Iraq tours. Unlike soldiers in Vietnam, who only did one tour unless they re-enlisted, today’s troops are deployed multiple times, which is making for a new, more battle-tested type of war deserter. Phil McDowell of Rhode Island, for example, joined the Army in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and fled to Canada in 2006 because he received stop-loss orders back to Iraq after he’d already done one tour there and had been discharged.
Regardless of the differences between the deserter generations, today’s deserters in Canada have a similar unwillingness to fight in an unpopular war. To Zaslofsky, they are even more courageous than he and his peers were. “In a way, I value them a lot more than my generation,” he says. “We had this vast antiwar movement to support us and inform our decisions. They don’t have that. They’ve come to this individually, not because of some mass political indoctrination.”
Key’s uneasiness about the Army’s presence in Iraq began in the first months of the war in 2003 as he served with Fort Carson’s 43rd Combat Engineer Company in Ramadi. His platoon would raid one to four houses each night in search of insurgents or evidence of terrorism, but night after night, all they found were tidy, middle-class homes filled with terrified families, he writes in The Deserter’s Tale, his autobiography as told to Canadian writer Lawrence Hill. Drawn from his recollections and with little or no corroboration from other soldiers, the book is a haunting chronicle of the mounting disillusionment that led him to desert. As his unit stormed through Iraqi homes, he recounts, they’d shout at the inhabitants to “Get down!” and “Shut the fuck up!” in English, then knock the men to the ground, often beating them before hauling them off for transport to a detention facility. “We tore the hell out of those places,” Key writes, “blasting apart doors, ripping up mattresses and ripping drawers from dressers. From all our ransacking, we never found anything other than the ordinary goods that ordinary people keep in their houses.” He also recounts how the soldiers — him included — would steal from families during the raids, making off with knives, jewelry, gold, cash and, once, a television.
Parts of the book read like scenes out of Apocalypse Now. One chapter describes an Army specialist who liked to release aggression by body-slamming corpses in a shed, while another shows members of Key’s unit coming upon the bodies of dead Iraqis near the Euphrates River and kicking their severed heads around like soccer balls. One day, while riding through Fallujah atop an armored personnel carrier, the sergeant next to him grew annoyed when a pickup swerved in front of their vehicle. Without missing a beat, Key writes that the sergeant “let loose with his .50-caliber machine gun.” The bullets tore into the truck’s gas tank, transforming it into a fireball and prompting “hollers of delight” from some of the other men. Perhaps most traumatic for Key was watching, helpless, as a young Iraqi girl he’d befriended while guarding a hospital was felled by M16 gunfire from an unknown location. All this, he writes, led him to conclude that the American military “had become a force for evil, and I could not escape the fact that I was part of the machine.”
Airman Dale Landry says he began to question the Iraq War while stationed at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, in 2005. “I had friends who deployed and came back and said, ‘I don’t understand what the year I spent in the desert was for — all we did was patrol for IEDs, raid houses and guard detainees,’” he says. At the same time, soldiers were being prosecuted for the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and Landry says he began to read as much as he could about the case for war in Iraq, including reports revealing that much of the intelligence on Iraqi weapons capabilities that the Bush administration had used as the basis for war turned out to be shaky. He also read the U.N resolutions opposing the U.S. invasion and the 9/11 Commission report. “I decided that our occupation of that country is illegal, so I made a vow to myself,” Landry says. “I’m still an airman, I still have a responsibility, but I’ll never take part in the occupation of that country.”
The Air Force, however, has a different take on Landry’s desertion. While Landry says he deserted after receiving orders to Iraq, Robert Krause, a Dyess spokesman, says Landry was never ordered to deploy to Iraq and in fact left to avoid disciplinary charges related to behavioral problems.
Questions about the legality of the Iraq War were an integral part of the initial case for deserters pursuing asylum in Canada. When they began arriving in 2004 and 2005, their lawyers filed claims for refugee status based on the Geneva Conventions and the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ handbook says a deserter is entitled to asylum if he has refused to participate in a war judged to be unlawful by the international community. But Alyssa Manning, the attorney representing at least a dozen of the deserters, including Rivera, Key and Landry, explains that the Canadian courts have declined to consider the legality of the Iraq War in their rulings, finding that unless the asylum seeker is a high-ranking officer with decision-making ability, whether or not the war is condemned by international law is irrelevant.
“When they were first coming, the idea was that the war itself was illegal, so they shouldn’t have to fight in it,” Manning says. “Jeremy Hinzman’s 2004 refugee claim was based on that, but the refugee board, the federal court and the Federal Court of Appeal refused to consider that.” Key is the only deserter still waiting on a pending refugee claim, since he and Manning are arguing that he merits asylum not because the war itself is illegal but because he was ordered to commit acts — such as the house raids — that have been condemned by the international human-rights community.
In most of the cases, instead of pursuing refugee claims, Manning is applying for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. That requires showing that the deserters would face hardship if they returned to the United States, requiring that they apply from afar. So far, the Immigration Ministry has denied all of the requests, and Manning has requested judicial review. Three of her petitions for judicial review have been granted, and more are pending. If the federal court reviews a case and finds fault with the decision, rather than reversing it, the court’s ruling signals a chance to start the process anew and perhaps have a different outcome.
“This is a really hard fight,” Manning says, “because every time you get a victory, it’s only a partial victory.”
In addition to buying time in the courts, deserters and their supporters are hoping Canada’s Parliament might provide a political solution, which would require either the fall of the conservative government or a successful bid by the liberal parties to pass legislation that allows the Americans to stay. Last summer, Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution arguing that the deserters should be given residency, and polls show that 60 percent of Canadians agree.
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.”
“I left that month, too,” Hamib says. “It was horrible. It was hell. Bombings, no electricity, no water, no telephones, no food, no nothing for days. We’d go everywhere in taxis, but it was very dangerous. You didn’t know if the driver was a criminal or a terrorist. And I was a target for many reasons. I’m a professor, an activist, a woman.”
The two women look at each other for a moment in silence. “That’s crazy,” Rivera finally says. “We could have crossed paths there, but we met right here.”
The next day, January 23, is cold and overcast, only four days before the Riveras are scheduled to be deported. Manning, their lawyer, hasn’t yet heard from the federal court about a stay of deportation, and all they can do at this point is pray. On this chilly morning, Kim has awoken with a head cold. Christian and Rebecca are chasing each other around the living room of the family’s two-bedroom apartment on the upper floor of a cramped high-rise.
“Stop that,” Kim tells them. “Mommy’s sick.” She shakes her head. “Who knows what’s going to happen to me in the next few days, and I’ll be sick on top of it. Great.”
She rises from the couch to dress and run errands. She’ll strap the baby to her chest and go to the pharmacy to pick up Mario’s medication for high blood pressure. She tries to take good care of her husband. She’s well aware of the fact that they are in this situation because of her decision to enlist, and while she doesn’t regret joining the Army — “I needed the experience to open my eyes,” she says — she feels accountable. Sometimes when she looks at her husband, she is amazed. “I can’t believe I found someone to love me through all of this,” she says. “It’s amazing. I mean, we’ve known each other since we were 17, and he stuck with me through everything. Not even my parents could do that.”
While she cooks eggs in the kitchen, the phone rings. Mario, sitting at the computer, picks it up. His eyes widen as he listens.
“Oh, that’s great,” he says. “Wait until I tell Kimberly.”
He listens and nods, then hangs up. He calls to his wife, who appears, holding a spatula.
“So unfortunately, Alyssa called about the stay ...” he tells her.
Kim’s breath catches. “Uh-huh?”
“We didn’t get it,” he says, trying unsuccessfully to disguise his grin.
“Are you messing with me?” Kim asks.
Her husband laughs. “We got it.”
“For how long?”
“Maybe through June. We don’t know.”
Kim exhales, her shoulders relaxing a bit. “All I can say is, thank God.”
Mario nods. “That buys us a few months,” he says. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”
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