Reuniting Refugee Families: Ellaha’s Story

This week’s guest writer is Marlene Epp, a board member of Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support in Kitchener, Ontario. She teaches history and peace & conflict studies at Conrad Grebel University College.

My friend Ellaha has not seen three of her eight children for almost seven years. As a former refugee claimant in Canada, now a permanent resident, she longs to reunite her family and is sad, worried, and frustrated with the obstacles that confront her in seeing that happen.

Ellaha was a women’s rights activist and journalist in Afghanistan who, urged to do so by her family, fled to Canada in 2008 after she was threatened and lived in danger. She assumed her children would soon be able to follow her. Two daughters studying outside of Afghanistan at the time have now joined her in Canada; she gave birth to a son in the spring of 2009.  Two children adopted during the war in the early 2000s were removed from her sponsorship application because their adoptions were not adequately documented, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This was heart-breaking for Ellaha.

Afghanistan countryside. MCC photo Chris Ewert.
Afghanistan countryside. MCC photo Chris Ewert.

In the meantime, three other children (now young adults) have lived in three different countries outside of Afghanistan. They have had to move because of economic insecurity, harassment by Taliban recruiters, and more recently, attempted luring by traffickers. They desperately want to join their mother and siblings in Canada and are eager to work and study. But the often impenetrable and inexplicable bureaucracy of the Canadian immigration system has extended the projected 31 months – already too long – for family reunification to nearly seven years.  Ellaha and her children have complied with repeated requests for police and medical checks, filled out endless forms and declarations, even undergone DNA tests, and waited patiently during long gaps in communication from the office processing their file. Needless to say, family bonds suffer during such long separations.

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) has condemned these long waiting times as “intolerable.” The organization has called for an Express Entry program for family reunification, in line with the government’s Express Entry program for economic immigrants. In the case of the latter, the government commits to processing the application of a potential immigrant with a valid job offer in six months or less. Surely, says the CCR, reuniting children with their parents should be as much a priority as facilitating the arrival of self-sufficient economic immigrants.

Unfortunately, many aspects of the immigration system, especially with regard to refugees, is predicated on assumptions of guilt before innocence is proven. One Member of Parliament I spoke to could not understand why a mother would leave her children behind in the first place. In reply, I told him about similar situations that many Mennonite families had faced when fleeing their homes during the Second World War. Sometimes, there were better hopes for safety for everyone if family members separated temporarily. Such difficult choices have been made throughout history by people running for their lives.

Ellaha Saroosh with her 5-year-old son Arwin Bahman. Photo courtesy The Record.
Ellaha Saroosh with her 5-year-old son Arwin Bahman. Photo courtesy The Record.

When she first arrived in Canada, Ellaha was assisted with her refugee claim by the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support, a small independent charity that works with refugee claimants, as opposed to resettled refugees. After that she became a regular volunteer, taking leadership in a women’s sewing collective. MCRS now runs a support group for families that are awaiting reunification, who can empathize with each other and the roller coast of emotions that they all experience.

It would seem to be a straightforward issue – to reunite parents with their children after war, persecution and other human rights violations have put national borders between them. But why is it so difficult? New immigration regulations implemented in 2012 reduced the timelines in the refugee determination process – which has created other problems – but did not address the serious problem of families living apart for years.

Ellaha’s eldest daughter in Canada recently opened a small restaurant in downtown Kitchener, Ontario, specializing in shawarmas, kabobs, and delicious Afghan rice. Her mother and sister help out. It is a lot of work and they are anxious about the business venture. Yet, the restaurant has helped to distract them from the constant waiting and worrying about their loved ones overseas, and is also a symbol of their resilience and hope for the future.

The Canadian government would do well to support families like Ellaha’s by expediting their reunification and by recognizing that stronger families make for a stronger nation.

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