Refugees plead for family reunification

September 21, 2015

By Sunny Dhillon |

An Iraqi teen who has been without her mother for more than a year. A woman from Yemen who was forced to leave her newborn behind and has not seen him in six years. A man from Uganda whose last glimpse of his two sons was a decade ago.

Refugees who arrived in Canada without some of their closest family members attended a tearful news conference in Vancouver on Monday to discuss a reunification process they say is far too slow.

A day earlier, the federal government – which has been criticized for its response to the refugee crisis abroad – unveiled new measures to speed up the resettlement process. But the refugees who spoke at Monday’s event, and the advocates who joined them, said Ottawa can do more, particularly when it comes to bringing families back together.

Huda Mohammed Ahmed Ahmed, a 14-year-old who was born in Iraq but whose family fled to Turkey because of the war, came to Canada with her older brother last year as a government-assisted refugee. Their mother has not been approved to come, and remains in Turkey.

“I miss her,” the ninth-grader said in halting English, standing on a toolbox so she could see over a podium.

Khadija Ahmed, who is not related to the teenager, gave birth to a son in Yemen two weeks before she learned she could come to Canada. Ms. Ahmed had believed her application – filed four years earlier – would never be approved and had not updated it to include her new child or new husband.

She had a choice: Ms. Ahmed could move to Canada with three of her children, or stay in Yemen and resubmit her application. She chose the former, hoping her newborn and her husband could quickly follow. That was six years ago, she said, sobbing as she spoke.

“Please help me be reunited with my family,” Ms. Ahmed said through an interpreter.

Chris Friesen, chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance, which arranged Monday’s event, said the federal government has also asked Ms. Ahmed for DNA tests to confirm the child she left behind is hers.

Mr. Friesen said the father from Uganda, Wilson Lakony, last saw his sons when they were 12 and 15. They have been with their uncle for the past 10 years. Mr. Lakony filed the paperwork to bring them to Canada years ago, Mr. Friesen said, and is still waiting.

Mr. Friesen said family reunification is the quickest way to increase the number of refugees arriving in Canada, and he called on the federal government to adopt four recommendations. He said Ottawa should expedite extended family reunification, and expand the definition of family to include grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces.

Mr. Friesen said government should also expedite settlement of children whose parents have been approved for permanent residency by the Immigration and Refugee Board, and allow people who wish to leave Syria the opportunity to reunite with family members in Canada – either through permanent resettlement or visitor visas.

A Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson said the department could not provide a response on Monday. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander unveiled plans on the weekend to reduce the time to bring in 10,000 refugees to 15 months from three years, at a cost of $25-million. The government also said it would no longer require migrants to prove they are convention refugees under the United Nations Refugee Agency, and said it would devote more resources to screening refugees on the ground and processing them in Canada.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children, said at Monday’s news conference that the reunification process is too complex and unacceptably slow. She said the weekend announcement was welcome, but she would also like Ottawa to stop saddling refugees with travel loans.

Mei-ling Wiedmeyer, medical director of the Bridge Clinic, which provides services for refugees, told reporters she can provide no medication or therapy that has the same therapeutic effect as being with loved ones and knowing they are safe. Dr. Wiedmeyer said clinic staff see the damaging effects of family separation every day.

Enas Alsaleh, who watched Monday’s news conference, said after the event her brother recently paid smugglers to take him from Syria to Germany. “He risked his life just to go,” she said.

Ms. Alsaleh, who came to Canada about nine years ago and is a citizen, said her parents remain in Syria. She cannot afford to sponsor any of her relatives.

“I wish Canada can do something for me,” she said.
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