The Family That Won’t Leave
Like hundreds of other Hungarian Roma, Jozsef Pusuma and Timea Daroczi came to Toronto seeking asylum. The refugee board believes they’re bilking the system. The Pusumas say they’re avoiding certain death
Every refugee story is different, but they all have a shared feature: the decisive moment a person realizes he or she can no longer stay at home. It can come after a slow build-up or as the result of a single cataclysmic event, but at some point there is an irrevocable break.
Until 2008, Jozsef Pusuma and his wife, Timea Daroczi, had a relatively peaceful life in Budapest. The Pusumas are Roma, the ethnic minority sometimes known as gypsies. They lived with their toddler, Lulu, in a small house on Jozsef’s grandmother’s property, a nice place with a few chickens in the yard. Jozsef worked as truck driver, Timea as an office administrator at the Ministry of Education. On weekends, friends and family would come over to barbecue and drink beer, turning a Saturday night into a small party.
Every once in a while, Jozsef would get a call from the office of Viktória Mohácsi, Timea’s sister-in-law and a former member of the European Union parliament. For years, Mohácsi had been documenting the surge of anti-Roma violence that was spreading across Hungary. When Mohácsi needed help, she often asked Jozsef. He would take addresses from her and drive into the country to visit Roma families who had reported attacks. He would listen to their stories of violence and take notes while they told him, a fellow Roma, things they would never tell the authorities.
In the late 2000s, with Hungary deep in recession, parties on the far right made the Roma a convenient scapegoat, spouting virulent anti-gypsy propaganda that helped them gain popularity. In 2010, the Jobbik party—a far-right group with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma views—won 12 per cent of the vote. In 2013, Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of the ruling party, Fidesz, wrote in a newspaper column that “a significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people…. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved—immediately and regardless of the method.” The rise of racist politics only legitimized the growing tensions between Hungarians and the Roma. In 2008 and 2009, at least six Roma Hungarians were killed and 50 injured in a series of attacks across the countryside. Militias marched through Roma communities with flaming whips and torches. According to a 2012 survey, 60 per cent of polled Hungarians believed that criminality is in Roma blood.
Timea worried about Jozsef’s trips to document the violence. Mohácsi’s outspoken activism had made her a target. She had received multiple threats and was placed under police protection for a time, and Jozsef was fearful that his family might also be in danger. The Pusumas began getting phone calls, angry threats. “They would call me at night,” Jozsef remembers. “ ‘Jozsef, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.’ Not just one phone call, 20.”
One evening in July 2009, Timea was waiting for Jozsef outside the house with Lulu. As Jozsef parked, a black jeep pulled up. According to Jozsef, four men jumped out of the car, their faces covered by the Arpad flag, a symbol that had been adopted by some far-right militias. The men beat the couple, yelling abuse. Jozsef fell on top of Lulu, protecting her with his body, while the men kicked and punched him. “You stinky gypsy, we know where you live,” one of them yelled. Lulu wailed, her face scratched from her fall to the sidewalk. When another car approached and the driver held down the horn, the men fled.
That’s when the family knew they needed to get out. They sold everything they owned, borrowed money from family and friends for airfare, and jumped on a plane to Toronto.
During the height of anti-Roma violence in Hungary, Canada was negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union, and getting pressure to treat all EU countries equally and stop requiring visas for Hungarian visitors. When the government agreed, the refugee numbers mushroomed. In 2007, just 34 Hungarians had applied for refugee status. In 2009, once visa requirements were dropped, 2,426 Hungarians arrived, the majority Roma seeking asylum. By 2011, that number had nearly doubled to 4,423, making Hungary the number-one source of refugee claimants that year.
Judit Durst, a University College London sociologist, spent years in a Roma community in southern Hungary before coming to Toronto to figure out why so many Roma were making the journey. In the late 2000s, she says, “moving to Canada” had become one of the main topics of conversation among the Roma in Hungary. “Canada” was synonymous with “land of opportunity.” It was a multi-ethnic country without discrimination, a place with a welcoming refugee policy where you wouldn’t starve. “Canada was the chance to escape from the harsh reality of one’s daily life of destitution.”
Nearly all of those asylum seekers landed at Pearson airport. The Toronto area has long had a modest Roma population, with families arriving from eastern Europe from the late 1800s onward. In the way of all migration networks, many Hungarian Roma knew a cousin or a former neighbour who had found a new life in this multicultural Canadian city. In 2009, many of the newly arrived Roma headed to Parkdale, entire Hungarian villages seemingly transplanted to a group of high-rises on Jameson Avenue.
The influx of so many newcomers created some tensions: Roma teenagers and Tibetans scuffled in parks; the Roma Community Centre got complaints about Roma families leaving their kids unsupervised at a playground. Shirley Roberts, a director at the Parkdale Community Health Centre, remembers the arrival of the Roma in the neighbourhood as a sudden explosion. Referrals doubled, leaving the centre scrambling to set up programs and find translators. In Hungary, Roma students are sometimes kept in special-needs classrooms regardless of actual ability—part of an ad hoc system of segregation that has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. Parkdale schools accepted dozens of new Roma students a week, and rushed to hire translators and teachers to help acclimatize classrooms full of kids who mistrusted authority.
The Pusumas landed in Toronto penniless and without a word of English. Another Roma family on the flight called a refugee shelter at Christie and Bloor for them and gave them taxi money. The Pusumas spent their first month and a half at the shelter before moving into a small apartment in Thorncliffe Park, an East York neighbourhood that has been the touchdown point for waves of new immigrants—South Asians, Filipinos, East Africans, and in the late 2000s, more and more Roma families.
Eventually, they received $1,249 of welfare a month, $995 of which went toward rent. They remember those first months in Canada—sleeping on a blanket on the floor, walking two hours in the snow to their lawyer’s office—as one of the best periods of their lives. On one of his first days in Toronto, Jozsef walked out onto Bloor Street with a map in hand, trying to figure out how to get to the doctor’s office. Two different people approached him to ask if he needed help. “It was shocking to me,” he said. In Hungary, he could never shake his “gypsy feeling”—the sense that the tint of his skin made him an object of derision, a target for violence. In Toronto, he was just another person on the street. “I loved it. It felt so good to me,” he says. “I’m not a dirty animal here. I’m just a regular person.”
The Pusumas quickly became well known in the growing Roma community. Timea’s Daroczi relatives are activists and writers, poets and filmmakers. There are 21 diplomas in her family, she says proudly—a rarity in a country where only 13 per cent of Roma finish high school. “When people found out there was a Daroczi in Toronto, they came to our door,” she says. The Pusumas let Roma families stay in their home, sometimes for months at a time; they cooked meals for strangers and helped them adjust to life in Toronto.
Gina Csanyi-Robah, a Toronto-born Roma, met the Pusumas when she was head of the Roma Community Centre. “They were running their own centre out of their apartment,” Csanyi-Robah says. She recruited Timea for an after-school program at Parkdale Public School, where she taught Roma history to kids who had never learned about their culture and instructed them in the Roma language. Jozsef, who had picked up English quickly after his arrival, became an unofficial translator and guide for bewildered new Roma, shepherding them through the confusing Canadian institutions and working with families who knew little about the rules and traditions of this new country.
For the federal government, the Roma asylum seekers seemed to represent an existential threat. How do you control the borders of your country when hordes of people from a European country can just get off a plane claiming to be refugees?
Many of the Hungarian Roma seeking asylum had borderline cases. It’s impossible to deny that the Roma face harsh discrimination in Hungary, but the baseline for asylum is persecution. To acknowledge that genuine refugees could come from a democratic, European country was to embarrass important EU allies. Hungary has long insisted that the lines of Roma asylum seekers are nothing more than economic migrants in disguise.
In a Citizenship and Immigration committee meeting, Imre Helyes from the Hungarian embassy explained that, in his opinion, Hungarian asylum seekers were drawn here by “easy money, which can be obtained within the very generous framework of the Canadian refugee system.” Beyond suspicions about motivation, many of the arrivals had stories similar to Jozsef’s—beatings by thugs on the street, threats from neo-Nazis. For many members of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, the independent tribunal responsible for judging individual refugee claims, these stories simply weren’t credible. The Roma may have faced cruelty, but too many of them seemed to be embroidering their stories. In 2011, the year the IRB adjudicated the Pusumas’ case, just eight per cent of Hungarian Roma cases were accepted—far below the average across all countries of 31 per cent. Many families abandoned their asylum claims before their hearings.
That year, minister of citizenship and immigration Jason Kenney declared that the Roma were bogus refugees. “If people are interested in Canada because they want to pursue a quality health care system, or economic opportunities, or they don’t like their country of origin, then I would invite them to apply through our immigration system like everyone else,” he said.
In October of 2012, Kenney visited Hungary on a fact-finding mission. He toured the northern region where the vast majority of Roma refugee claimants come from, visiting the local hockey team and talking to politicians. A week after Kenney left, a Jobbik party rally filled the streets of one city with thousands of protestors marching around a Roma housing project carrying torches and chanting “Gypsy crime! Gypsy criminals!”
“These gypsies live like pigs and I swear they like it,” one protestor told Reuters. “Well, they will not like it for long if it’s up to me.”
Two months later, Kenney announced that Hungary would be included on a list of safe countries. Under Bill 31, new arrivals from countries our government considers capable of protecting human rights would have 15 days to submit a comprehensive refugee report detailing the threat in their home country—half the time provided to other refugee claimants. Their claims would be heard within 30 to 45 days of arrival, without an opportunity to appeal.
The government believes the Roma are gaming the system, jumping on a plane while Syrians in faraway refugee camps wait for their applications to be processed. In early 2013, Canada erected six billboards in Miskolc warning the locals of the changes to Canada’s immigration policy: “An announcement from the Government of Canada. To deter abuse, Canada’s refugee system has changed…. Applicants with unjustified claims will be sent home faster.” The government bought radio spots and handed out pamphlets, urging people to stay away. The message was more than clear: the Roma weren’t wanted in Canada.
The Pusumas had applied as refugees before the government began its crackdown, but their claim remained uncertain. Acquaintances suggested they hire Viktor Hohots, a Toronto lawyer with a Hungarian-speaking consultant. Hohots made a specialty of representing Roma refugee claimants, collecting legal aid fees for his work with hundreds of clients. While many Roma claims are rejected, the Pusumas believed that Jozsef’s human rights work gave them a strong case. And though the government may have insisted that Roma refugee cases were “bogus,” hundreds of Hungarians have been granted asylum by the Immigration and Refugee Board, who found their accounts of persecution convincing.
When Csanyi-Robah heard that Hohots was the Pusumas’ lawyer, her heart sank. “He was renowned among Roma asylum seekers for negligence,” she says. The Pusumas say Hohots only met with them for three minutes and that his aide, Joseph Sarkozi, filled out their personal information forms, the primary documents used to assess their refugee claim.
The refugee system is necessarily cruel, and decisions can sometimes seem arbitrary. Turning away people who are in trouble but not quite enough trouble, or at least not the right kind of trouble, is built into the process. Board members assess complex geopolitical issues to determine the validity of tangled personal histories. Sean Rehaag, an Osgoode law professor who specializes in immigration and refugee law, has analyzed decisions by IRB members since 2006 and has found a great disparity between individual board members. While some approve nearly all of the claimants they see, others go years without ever granting anyone refugee status.
In 2011, Pasquale A. Fiorino, a former church history professor at the University of Windsor and former executive director of a municipal community services provider, was the IRB member who decided the Pusuma case. That year, he was among the harshest adjudicators in the country, accepting just 10 of the 256 claimants before him—the third lowest acceptance rate of any IRB member with more than 50 cases. The day of the Pusumas’ hearing, Hohots didn’t show up, sending Sarkozi in his place. In a transcript from the hearing, Jozsef tells the IRB about anti-Roma racism and the violence in the countryside, and says that his family has become a target because of his work with Viktória Mohácsi.
“Sir, do you have any proof that you were employed by Viktória?” Fiorino asks. Months earlier, the Pusumas had brought Hohots a letter signed by the former member of the European parliament attesting to Jozsef’s human rights work for her. Hohots’s office, however, had not translated it.
“We have a letter from Viktória regarding that, but it is not yet translated. We need to translate it,” Sarkozi says.
“So basically we don’t have any proof on file that you were employed by Viktória; is that correct, yes or no?” Fiorino asks.
“It is not translated, yes,” says Jozsef. The hearing moves on, and Jozsef’s human rights work isn’t mentioned again.
A few weeks later, the Pusumas received their decision in the mail. Their claim had been rejected. Fiorino hadn’t found the story of their attack credible. Why hadn’t they mentioned it to the immigration officer when they had first applied for refugee protection? He also argued that the Pusumas had not demonstrated that Hungary was incapable of protecting them.
When it came to Jozsef’s human rights work, Fiorino didn’t believe the Pusumas. How was it possible that, given all that time, their lawyer hadn’t translated the letter from Mohácsi? “I find that, on a balance of probabilities, the principal claimant was not employed by Ms. Mohácsi,” he wrote.
Over that spring and summer, Hohots appealed their case. In late November, with their deportation date fast approaching, the Pusumas were becoming desperate. That’s when Anna Porter, a Hungarian-born book publisher and author who had become friends with the family, brought them to Mary Jo Leddy, a former nun and a refugee activist.
When Leddy looked at the Pusumas’ paperwork, she was appalled. “The papers the lawyers had filed were just pathetic,” she says. Their personal information forms, the documents that lay out their case, were poorly written and incomplete. “I got the picture quickly about what had happened.” Leddy passed the Pusumas on to Andrew Brouwer, a refugee lawyer with Legal Aid Ontario, who began trying to appeal the Pusumas’ case.
By the time Brouwer took the case, Hohots had already exhausted the official avenues for appeal. Brouwer asked the Immigration and Refugee Board to reopen the case and was refused. He tried to get the federal court to stop the deportation and was denied. “If this family had had one fair assessment of their risk, one assessment of all the facts in their case, it would be a different story,” he says.
The Pusumas filed a complaint against Hohots with the Law Society. The Law Society had received complaints from 16 former clients, all alleging that Hohots had failed to adequately prepare their refugee claims. The records show that over the years, Hohots had taken on hundreds of Hungarian asylum seekers. One client, a 37-year-old named Viktor Galyas whose initial refugee claim under Hohots was denied, took his case to the federal court. The judge found that Hohots had been incompetent. In February 2014, the Law Society announced it would launch a case against Hohots for professional misconduct. Hohots declined to comment for this story.
Sean Rehaag, the law professor, says that there is little oversight of immigration lawyers from the Immigration and Refugee board or the Law Society. People who often don’t speak English and don’t understand the Canadian legal system are easily taken advantage of by lawyers out to make a quick dollar. By the time anyone complains, they’ve already been deported.
On a cold grey day in December 2011, the Pusumas learned that their deportation was imminent. Mary Jo Leddy told Jozsef and Timea that they had two choices: they could get on a plane to Hungary, or they could go into sanctuary.
The concept of sanctuary, in which a religious institution gives shelter to refugees who have been rejected by the government, comes from medieval custom. The only thing preventing police from crashing through church doors to haul away fugitive families is the terrible PR it would generate. Churches, wary of bringing unwanted attention to themselves by making a political stink, only accept the most compelling cases. There are currently half a dozen or so families in sanctuary in Canada.
The Pusumas stuffed a suitcase full of Lulu’s clothes and rushed out the door. They worried that border agents might arrive at any moment to haul them to a detention centre if they suspected the family was on the move. They spent that night at a friend’s house. The next day, Leddy drove them to a house owned by St. John the Compassionate Mission at Broadview and Queen.
A few weeks later, Leddy moved the family to a more permanent spot in a room in the basement of Holy Cross Priory, a Victorian religious house near High Park that’s the home of six Anglican Benedictine monks. “At first I was thinking, just six months,” says Jozsef. “I just have to wait and the government will reopen my file.”
At Holy Cross, the Pusuma family ate dinner with the monks, sharing cooking duties with the men. Six months turned into a year, then a year and a half. Lulu dressed as a princess for Halloween. The family and the monks celebrated Christmas together. In June 2013, with the church thinking about selling the building, the Pusumas were forced to move again, this time to a single room in a United Church on a quiet Toronto street, the kind of church that displays the rainbow flag during Pride week and holds a sermon on environmental spirituality for Earth Day. (They asked that the exact location be kept a secret.)
The family has been there ever since. What the Pusumas thought would be a short stay has extended into a two-and-a-half-year purgatory. When I visited this spring, they seemed to be stuck in a state of permanent impermanence, forever hopeful that one of their legal challenges would be successful and they could be free the next day. The minister’s office had been transformed into a bedroom for three, with a sofa, a kitchen table, a TV and a double bed crammed tight against a single. The room was covered in Lulu’s drawings.
The family is dependent on donations for everything—the polka-dot dress Lulu wears to church service on Sundays, the laptop held together with an elastic band, the piles of Dr. Seuss books and stuffed animals. Each week, they write a shopping list for a volunteer from the church, saying how much milk they need, what kind of bread, how many eggs. In the mornings, Timea organizes and reorganizes their small room and teaches Lulu the alphabet and arithmetic. Jozsef goes to the church parlour when no one is around and plays his guitar or the church piano. When the church empties out in the evening, the couple make dinner together in the kitchenette.
From their room in sanctuary, the Pusumas have watched as the wave of Hungarian Roma families they arrived with has receded. The families they’d once helped in Thorncliffe Park have been deported or have abandoned their refugee claims. The federal government’s new refugee policy, meanwhile, has been incredibly effective. The stream of Roma asylum seekers has stopped abruptly, with Hungarian claimants declining by 97 per cent. In 2013, the number of people seeking asylum in Canada from around the world reached a historic low—either a triumph or a disaster, depending on your view of refugee claimants.
In 2012, Jozsef’s old boss Viktória Mohácsi arrived in Toronto seeking refugee status. The fact that a former EU parliamentarian is living here, claiming asylum from a European nation, is a major story, followed closely around the world. In an interview with the CBC in 2012, Mohácsi accused the former Hungarian government of covering up their knowledge of Roma murders. For now, Mohácsi is waiting for the results of her refugee hearing. Her case is yet another headache for the government. It’s hard to dismiss the claims of a former parliamentarian and the winner of human rights awards.
The Pusumas, meanwhile, have amassed a growing group of advocates. There are volunteers from the congregation who tackle issues of refugee policy with church-bake-sale gusto, organizing a “Free Lulu” campaign and making hand-drawn placards in the church parlour. Schoolchildren have held a drive to collect toys for Lulu. And the family has benefited from the support and political clout of the recently formed Jewish Refugee Action Network as well as other Jewish-Canadian groups that see parallels between anti-Roma attitudes and anti-Semitism.
The Pusumas’ lawyer’s latest plan is to convince the federal government to grant the family a temporary resident permit so they can testify against Viktor Hohots this fall. The Law Society has issued a summons for the Pusumas to appear. Their supporters have committed $40,000 as a guarantee that the family will not be reliant on the government if they’re allowed to stay. The Harbord House, a gastropub in the Annex, has agreed to hire Timea as a cook. Jozsef has been promised a job as a landscaper. The Pusumas are hopeful that with proof that the family won’t cost taxpayers a dime, the government will relent. But there is no sign the government is budging. When I contacted Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the office wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the Pusuma case. In a statement, they wrote that the Pusumas have had all of their legal challenges dismissed or refused. “All individuals have the right to due process. However, once they have exhausted all legal avenues, we expect them to respect our immigration laws and leave Canada.”
At a rally in June, 150-odd people gathered outside the Ajax GO train station to march on Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s office and demand that he reopen the Pusumas’ refugee claim and also offer the family a temporary resident permit. There were Franciscan monks in their brown religious habits, young Change.org activists, an imam, and rabbis and other Jewish activists blowing shofars—the ram horn said to have brought down the walls of Jericho. Nathan Leipciger, an 86-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor, stepped up onto a crate to speak: “Seventy-one years ago I stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau as a Jew, separated by only a barbed wire fence from hundreds of Roma. Our fate was the same. I was lucky. I survived. At the time, the world stood silent. As Holocaust survivors today, we are concerned about the increased discrimination against the Roma in Hungary.” The protestors delivered boxes filled with a 40,000-signature petition. Alexander’s office workers accepted the petition, awkwardly, and the protestors slowly headed home. The Pusumas, in their room in the church, watched the rally over an iPhone video chat.
When I visited the Pusumas this summer, they were getting ready for service. Sundays are something to look forward to—the day of the week when the community comes to the church, and Lulu is guaranteed to see the friends she’s slowly collected, one week at a time, under such unusual circumstances. When a gap-toothed five-year-old walked through the doors, Lulu ran to her, hugging the girl with a kind of ravenousness before the two of them clasped hands and walked toward the front of the church, giggling.
After the sermon, the congregation lingered in the parlour, drinking coffee and eating supermarket mini-brownies. Jozsef sipped his coffee sitting in one of the chairs in the hallway, alone in thought. Recently, he said, he has been struck hard by a strange new feeling, a deep homesickness for a place he knows he can never return to. “I miss everything—the food, my friends, my street, my car,” Jozsef said. In Hungary, the Pusumas had a home and a loving family. Timea has a sister she hasn’t seen in years, nieces she’s never met, a sick grandmother she speaks to on Skype whenever she can.
Now, however, Jozsef is planning his future. “I have to make two lines,” he told me. The first line leads to a life in Canada. On this path, the government listens to the people arguing on behalf of his family and accepts the Pusumas as refugees. They pay taxes, bring new friends to their home on a Saturday evening and begin to repay the enormous kindness they’ve been shown here.
The other line—plan B—is still a mystery. They won’t resettle in Hungary. When stories about his asylum case reached Hungarian newspapers, Jozsef says, the reader comments were filled with vitriol about the gypsy traitor in Canada besmirching Hungary’s good name. The Roma Community Centre keeps no official statistics on departures, but according to its current director, Nazik Deniz, the vast majority of those who are deported don’t go back to Hungary. They go elsewhere. England is a popular destination, or Germany.
The family have been in sanctuary for so long, and have mobilized so many volunteers and kindhearted supporters who tell them not to give up and to keep fighting, that it has become difficult to imagine what failure would even look like. “I need to make another road for myself, but I don’t know where,” Jozsef said.
Slowly, the congregation trickled out, back to their homes or out to the parks to enjoy the warm air and feel the sun on their bare arms on one of the first nice weekends after a seemingly interminable winter. The Sunday school teacher said goodbye to the family. Then Lulu’s friend left with her parents. Finally the minister and her husband closed the doors behind them and the Pusumas were alone again, left to find a way out of their predicament.