Military Deserters Once Again Flock to Canada

Looks like this time they picked the wrong country.

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 and 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 Hamid, 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, Hamid 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."

Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq War deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto.
Ian Willms
Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq War deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto.
Army
deserter
Kim Rivera
grocery shops
for her family in
Toronto, where they
fled after she went
AWOL in 2007.
Ian Willms
Army deserter Kim Rivera grocery shops for her family in Toronto, where they fled after she went AWOL in 2007.

"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."

Hamid 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.

"Southeast Baghdad."

"When did you arrive there?"

"I was there October 2006 through January 2007."

"I left that month too," Hamid 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," Rivera 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, 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."

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