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Rodney Watson has been living in First United Church since September

US soldier seeks sanctuary in Vancouver church

In a cramped room barely twenty feet from side to side, there’s a window overlooking a grimy alleyway, a few…

By Cecilia Greyson , in City Feature story , on December 2, 2009

In a cramped room barely twenty feet from side to side, there’s a window overlooking a grimy alleyway, a few pieces of worn furniture and an old television set. Rodney Watson’s apartment in an East Vancouver church is small but spotlessly clean.

“I feel like I’ve gone from one prison to another,” said Watson, a 32-year-old U.S. soldier and Iraq War veteran. Watson has been unable to leave First United Church since September without threat of deportation after his refugee claim was denied.

Rodney Watson has been living in First United Church since September
Rodney Watson has been living in First United Church since September.

“It was a slap in the face,” said Watson, describing his reaction to learning that a deportation day was set for Sept. 11, 2009. “I could only imagine what the military police would do to a black war deserter deported back to the United States on Sept.11.”

Law enforcement officials and the Ministry of Immigration have not commented on First United Church’s decision to give Watson sanctuary.  But it is anyone’s guess how long he may be forced to stay confined indoors.

Watson approached Minister Ric Matthews from First United Church and asked for sanctuary after two attempts to overturn a deportation order were denied.

First United Church has a longstanding agreement with local police that they will not arrest anyone while they are inside the building, Matthews said.

“There was a basic injustice here that needed to be prevented,” he said. “Sanctuary doesn’t seek to undermine the law, but it tries to interrupt the process of something that may be unjust.”

Tour of duty

Canada’s status as a safe haven has changed thirty years after welcoming tens of thousands of U.S. Army deserters and conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.  12 American soldiers seeking asylum in Canada have been denied refugee status or residency since the Iraq War began, and 5 have been issued deportation orders since 2008.

Listen to Rodney Watson on his experience as a soldier in Iraq:


A career in the military was Watson’s ticket out of poverty. He joined the army when a recruiter promised him a position supervising cooks in Iraq.

“During training, they had me doing little or no cooking at all,” said Watson, who completed basic training in Fort Hood, Texas. “It was just combat, combat, combat.”

While in Iraq, Watson was stationed at the gate to a military base. He was ordered to check vehicles and civilians for explosives and weapons without receiving proper training.  He was also in charge of monitoring a holding area where more than 200 Iraqi men were detained.

“It was just me with an M16 and a radio,” said Watson, who was attacked by one civilian with a knife. “It was my job to keep the peace.”

Watson witnessed racism and discrimination during his tour in Iraq. He saw U.S. soldiers beating Iraqi citizens and spitting on their Korans on several occasions. Watson felt unable to complain without suffering repercussions from his fellow soldiers.

“They called the Iraqis ‘sand niggers’,” said Watson. “Then they’d turn to me and say ‘no offense.’”

Related: Canada divided over US soldiers fleeing Iraq war

Land of the free

Watson was ordered to prepare for deployment immediately after returning home to the United States. He considered leaving the army while preparing for his second tour of duty in a war zone.

First United Church has received only two messages criticizing their decision to support Rodney Watson
First United Church has received support from church members for their decision to support Rodney Watson.

“There were quite a few people who went absent without leave in my unit down to Mexico or up to Canada,” Watson said. “I’ve heard that there’s thousands in the United States just laying low, living like ghosts.”

Watson crossed the border into Canada as a visitor with $2,000 in his pocket and began working odd jobs in Vancouver. He contacted Sarah Bjorknas, a local representative from the War Resisters Support Committee, who helped Watson find legal representation.

“Rodney got in touch with us after being here for a while,” said Bjorknas. “It’s pretty difficult to survive without support.”

Watson checked his Facebook support page and answered phone calls while answering questions last Friday morning. From a decorated cardboard box he pulled photographs of his one-year-old son Jordan, born in Vancouver to Watson’s Canadian fiancée.

“I want to stay in this country and be a father to my son,” said Watson.

Facing arrest and a probable court martial if he returns to the United States, Watson’s fate is uncertain.

“It would be a great injustice for people like myself to be punished after witnessing what was going on in the Middle East,” said Watson. “We’re just pawns in a giant chess game.”


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