Vive the Underground Railroad

Written by Keith Zakheim |

The problem with policy-driven political debates is that they blur the human element. A good case in point is a world-class piece of journalism in the most recent edition of the New Yorker. Jack Halpern introduces his reader to a modern-day underground railroad for refugees. With its hub in Buffalo, where its Grand Central Station resides in a dilapidated shelter called Vive in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, the refugee underground railroad is host to people with gut-wrenching stories of fleeing persecution at home only to encounter hardships in the US. It is also an example of the power of a few individuals to make a world of difference in the lives of others.


Vive was founded in 1984 by a group of nuns, and today it is staffed by a network of volunteers and funded with grants and private donations. Over the years, more than 100,000 refugees have used Vive as a stop on their passageway to asylum in Canada.


Interestingly, 90% of the refugees seeking shelter at Vive hail from countries that are not singled out in the latest version of the executive order on immigration. It is persecution and violence in places like Somalia, Eritrea, and Colombia that is motivating the move to Canada.


Why is the destination Canada and not the US? Canada is far more welcoming to refugees than the US in both its laws and contemporary culture. Political refugees have a far better chance of acquiring legal asylum in Canada then they do in the US. The northern border is by no means porous or an immigration free-for-all. Canada’s immigration agency is vigilant about screening each refugee for connections to terrorist organizations or other nefarious agendas. However, Canada does not allow security threats to interfere with its commitment to providing a haven for those who are adrift with nowhere to go.


The refugees, however, might never get to Canada without a stopover in the U.S., and Vive, through its network of volunteers, provides them this service.


Politics aside, the refugee crisis is at its core a humanitarian crisis. Luckily, there are people at Vive and elsewhere who are willing to disrupt their own lives to better the lives of others.