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Escaping War: America’s Refugee Soldiers | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- When 26 year old Lee Zaslofsky bid his parents farewell as he prepared to flee to an unknown future in Canada, rather then serve in a war he did not believe in, little did he know that three decades later he would be at the forefront of a campaign to help a new generation of US soldiers flee a war and seek asylum in Canada.

The US Army is facing difficulties in recruitment; the monthly number of army volunteers is at its lowest in years, in addition to an increasing number of soldiers opting to go north to Canada rather than east to Iraq.

After evading the Vietnam War by seeking refuge in Canada in January 1970, where he has remained since; Zaslofsky is now trying to help soldiers who have made the same choice with regards to the war in Iraq.

“I never expected this to happen in my country again,” Zaslofsky told Asharq Al-Awsat in reference to the US being embroiled in a long war that lacks public support.

Zaslofsky, speaking from Toronto, added, “Many of these American soldiers decide against fighting in this war, like they did with Vietnam, because they feel sorry for what they’ve seen happen to the people there. They prefer the hard choice of leaving their country for good rather than being involved in this war.”

Since 2004, Zaslofsky has been working with the War Resisters Support Campaign, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to help American soldiers fleeing to Canada and protect their rights. With approximately 75 volunteers, Zaslofsky explained that the campaign, “aims to help those (soldiers) who arrive in Canada in several ways: we provide them with material aid and give them legal advice and provide them with housing at the houses of volunteers.” He added that, “the other part of our work is the important political work, raising awareness in the media and pushing the Canadian government to allow them to stay here.”

War Resisters Support Campaign was the first destination for James Burmeister who decided to leave the US Army last spring after being informed that he would be redeployed to Iraq. Burmeister had previously served six months in Iraq that ended with a serious injury in which he lost hearing in his left ear.

As to the reasons behind his opposition to the war and his decision to not return to Iraq, Burmeister told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I stopped believing in this war. I was told I would do humanitarian work in Iraq, things like building schools and hospitals to help the Iraqis but I found it (the war) was all about kill and capture operations.”

He revealed that going to Iraq last year was his first military combat experience, saying that the suffering he had endured there was unexpected. “It’s nothing like what we see in the movies or what we are told. You go looking for trouble and you don’t see it for weeks, then suddenly there is so much chaos,” he said in reference to the targeting of US troops in Iraq.

Burmeister arrived in Canada in May 2007 from Germany where he had been in the American military hospital [Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC)] recovering from an injury he had suffered following a bomb explosion that targeted his convoy in the Iraqi capital. Following three months of lengthy treatment and surgery for a head injury, the US Army issued an order to send Burmeister back to Iraq. “They wanted to send me back there on crutches and taking anti-depressants,” he said.

Burmeister spoke at length of the psychological effects the war had on him, saying “I realized how my mind was changing while I was in Iraq, I just wanted to kill. I had to step back, it was frightening.”

This is when Burmeister knew that returning to Iraq was not an option. He went to Toronto with his German wife whom he had met during the time he was based in Germany before his first trip to Iraq. After he contacted volunteers from the War Resisters Support Campaign, he relocated to Ottawa where he stayed with a volunteering family since all the houses of the volunteers in Toronto were occupied by other soldiers.

Burmeister feels a certain sense of guilt towards his comrades who remain in Iraq, thinking at times about returning to his country. “Because I feel it’s the right thing to do  even if I face prison or a dishonorable discharge from the army,” but added, “I can’t go back to the killing.”

Burmeister says he refuses to participate in the practices of what he described as “small kill teams”, which include “four of five soldiers, with a couple of snipers, who would go out on the streets and put something out, like a camera. Then they’d put a sign out [that said] if anyone touched it, they would be killed. But a lot of these people do not read English, so they would touch it to see what it is, and then they would be shot. [This is justified by] saying the American army has the right to shoot anyone trying to steal its property.”

“People there are nice. Most of the Iraqis I met are smart, spoke good English, they are really respectful people  especially the elders,” he said, “I’d lay my life down for the Iraqis but I don’t see a role for us there  they are fighting each other, and us being there won’t change that.”

Like all other applications issued by American soldiers in Canada, Burmeister’s asylum application was rejected. It was also stated that his pregnant wife should return back to the US since she would not face prosecution if she returned to Germany. Should Burmeister return, it is likely that the army will redeploy him to Iraq  or he would face a court martial.

Burmeister’s family supports his decision; he said that they call him on a daily basis from Oregon to check on him. However, Matthew Lowell, another American soldier in Canada, is not so sure his family backs his decision. “I do talk to my family, although they haven’t come to visit me at all. As far as them supporting my decision, I am not fully certain,” he said.

Unlike Burmeister, Lowell did not serve in Iraq; in fact he has never been there but chose to seek asylum before his time came to fight in Iraq in protest against the US presence in Iraq.

In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Lowell said, “I tried to get out legitimately before deciding to go AWOL [Absent Without Official Leave]. Nothing I did worked though; I came to Canada first in September-October 2003. At that time, I didn’t know about applying for refugee status or a work permit and just got a job that paid under the table”.

But then Lowell decided to return to his country, “After about seven to eight months, my mum talked me into going back and trying to get everything resolved. I went back, told them I wanted out, that I didn’t agree with what was going on in Iraq and I didn’t want [to be] any part of it.”

Upon his return to the US, his attempts to get out of the military failed and so he escaped Fort Knox in Kentucky and was imprisoned for four days as a result. He was forced to return whereupon he was physically assaulted and maltreated, according to his account. In November 2005, he made the decision to escape to Canada alone and for good.

Stressing his opposition against the war in Iraq, Lowell said, “From the beginning I could see that it had nothing to do with (Al-Qaeda leader Osama) Bin Laden; it was not in defense of our country, Saddam was not an immediate threat to the US.” Furthermore, he insisted that he had opposed the war from a moral standpoint even before it had begun, “Later on, however, I started to realize that it wasn’t sanctioned by the UN, women and children were getting killed and the US was bombing cities without sending warnings for people to evacuate,” he said.

In 2004, Jeremy Hinzman of the 82nd Airborne Division became the American first soldier to seek refuge in Canada since the beginning of the war in Iraq. He was 25 years old when he first arrived in Canada where he came with his wife Nga Thi Nguyen and their son Liam. However, his request for asylum was rejected.

Nineteen year-old American soldier Brandon Hughey arrived at the city of Saint Catherines [Ontario] two months later, and the number of asylum seeking troops has been on the rise since then. Since 2004, 35 soldiers have turned to War Resistors Support Campaign for help after arriving in Canada. Many come with their families, which makes the number of Americans fleeing to Canada approximately 100 people.

Zaslofsky stated that presently, there are between 100-200 US soldiers in Canada, however not all of them had contacted the Campaign and the majority of them have not sought asylum, which makes it difficult to get an accurate enumeration. Thus far, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in Canada has rejected the asylum applications submitted by US Army deserters.

In March 2005, Hinzman applied to be discharged or reassigned as a Conscientious Objector (CO) against the war in Iraq, but the IRB did not consider the reason sufficient to grant him asylum in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to consider Hinzman’s case this fall. If the Supreme Court were to agree to hear his case then the issue of US soldiers seeking asylum in Canada will become a wide-spanning judicial one that will compel the IRB to look into more cases. However, until this time comes, Hinzman, like other US soldiers, will continue to await a change in Canadian policy.

It is worth noting that between 1965 and 1973, over 50,000 Americans who were within the conscription age during the Vietnam War moved to Canada to dodge the draft. Adopting a stance against the war, Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister stated, “Those who make the conscientious judgments that they must not participate in the war… have my complete sympathy,” confirming that, “Canada should be a refuge from militarism.”

However, the incumbent Canadian government, led by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, and who is close to President George W. Bush, does not want to open its doors to fleeing US soldiers.

Despite the Canadian government’s caution to maintain good relations with the US administration, there is public pressure and demands to let the American troops remain in Canada. According to a poll published last August 16, 64.5 percent of the population of Ontario, one of Canada’s largest provinces, voted in favor of allowing the US troops to stay in Canada, while 27.2 percent voted that they be repatriated back to the United States, and the rest were unsure.

According to Zaslofsky, “The current government is the main obstacle for them staying here; it’s a minority conservative government that wants to stay close to the Bush administration”. He added, “If this government was in power when the decision to go to war in Iraq was taken (2003), it would have decided to take part in it.”

It is noteworthy that the former Canadian government had refused to participate in the war and continued to oppose it until the Conservative Party of Canada came to office in January 2006.

But the Canadian Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration refuses to draw a comparison between the current situation and the Vietnam War. As the spokesperson for the ministry said, “The two situations are incomparable”. She added that, “The ministry has received 13 applications for asylum, two of them have been assessed and turned down and they are now being appealed at the [Immigration and] Refugee Board. The rest are being assessed.”

If the ministry decided that a case deserved consideration as an asylum case, it would send it to the IRB, which would then decide whether to accept or reject the case. But the spokesman refrained from discussing the details of the asylum seeking policy and concluded that, “Each case is decided individually and [based] on its merit.”

But both Burmeister and Lowell’s applications to seek asylum in Canada have been rejected. Lowell explained that his case was denied because he was facing “prosecution not persecution” in the event of returning to his country. The US Department of Defense refused to comment on the issue of US soldiers in Canada; however, a spokesperson said that, “In 2006 there was a slight increase from previous years”. Regarding the consequences of sending soldiers to the US after going AWOL, she said “each case is evaluated on an individual basis, but the policy is to return most deserters to their unit because those commanders are in the best position to address the soldiers’ specific issues.”

Moreover, she explained that, “the army does not actively look for deserters, but they can be returned to military control by civilian law enforcement. This normally happens when police check identification during a traffic stop.”

Lowell understands that there are American circles, and even Iraqi ones, that consider deserting to be a cowardly act. His response is: “call me what you want. I left my country, my friends, my family, all because of my conscience and morals. What kind of person would I be if I agreed to participate in the slaughtering of people who didn’t agree with my way of life, who didn’t threaten my family, my friends, and everything that I know? When I joined the military it was to defend all those that I hold dear. I volunteered for the military on those grounds, so why if we aren’t defending, should I have to kill?” He concluded: “At least I can still hold my head up high and carry myself with pride and respect”.

While Burmeister and Lowell await the Supreme Court’s decision regarding their cases, they depend on the help of war resistors in Canada. If their appeals are refused then they would be forced to return to the US, however Zaslofsky expressed doubts that the soldiers would be repatriated and said, “that would cause a big outcry in Canada and would embarrass the government, so that might keep them here for a while and then look into it.”

With the US presence in Iraq and in the absence of declaring a date for withdrawal, the gradual flow of American soldiers into Canada shows no signs of abating. Zaslofsky revealed that he has begun to receive daily emails and phone calls from US soldiers inquiring about their rights and the means to Canada.

“Some get in touch just to inquire and know what there options are, we don’t advise them to come to Canada unless all their other options are out and we advise them to think long and hard before making their decision.” He added that once the decision is made, “we give them advice on what to expect once they come here and how they can cross the border,” and was quick to emphasize that, “we don’t tell them to do anything illegal.”

After having fled the US thinking he would never return, Zaslofsky was able to go back in 1975 after then-US-President Gerald Ford issued a partial amnesty to some draft dodgers, while former US President Jimmy Carter who came after him ordered a general amnesty. However, with the turbulent security situation in Iraq and the unlikelihood of the US withdrawing its troops next year, the future of US soldiers remains uncertain in Iraq, the United States and Canada.