In their quiet northeastern Edmonton neighborhood, refugee claimants Nermeen Salhani and Abed Chuheibar are painfully aware that the tranquility they feel, and the safety their two children are too young to appreciate, is only a temporary state.
Denied refugee status and soon to face deportation back to Lebanon—a country embroiled in violence and flooded with refugees from the war in neighboring Syria—Salhani and Chuheibar can only express shock at Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s apparent lack of sympathy towards their case.
From afar, Canada seems like a safe haven to many of the world’s approximately 10.5 million refugees, but recent crackdowns on the country’s immigration and refugee regulations have left families such as Chuheibar’s and Salhani’s feeling lost in the system and scared for their future.
In a nationwide effort to reduce the amount of bogus refugee claims—or so says Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney—cuts have recently been made to health care for refugee claimants, applications from government-designated “safe” countries have been fast-tracked, and deportations have become increasingly common as many begin to question Canada’s reputation as a country friendly to asylum-seekers.
Salhani and Chuheibar came from Lebanon to Canada as visitors around three years ago; only 10 days after their arrival, Salhani discovered she was pregnant and the couple decided to stay in the country. Now with two Canadian-born children and several months pregnant with a third, Salhani says she is more anxious than ever to secure a safe, comfortable life for her children in Edmonton—something she said would be impossible to do back in Lebanon.
“In Lebanon, if you’re going to buy a loaf of bread, you make sure that everything is set just in case you don’t come back, because you never know. You never know what might happen; you never know if there’s going to be a small issue or a small problem that will get you killed, or bombed, or anything,” Salhani says. “Of course, I know now that the kids are Canadian; they can come back here at the age of 18. But we are 16 years away from that.”
Even though the Canadian government has issued an advisory against all non-essential travel to Lebanon due to heightened safety concerns, it has been determined that Chuheibar, Salhani and their children are not in enough danger to warrant refugee status, and not settled enough in Canada to qualify for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
“They said, ‘You did not show us that you have accomplished anything here in Canada … you haven’t bought a house or you haven’t bought a car, you haven’t showed us even your tax papers,'” Salhani says.
Salhani’s anxiety is only exacerbated by the fact that if they do return to Lebanon, she and her husband will be unable to provide for themselves and their children, since Chuheibar is stateless—a status now inherited by his wife and children. Not considered a Lebanese citizen, Chuheibar is legally banned from owning property or working without a government-issued work permit. Although Salhani was once a Lebanese citizen, after marrying Chuheibar she, too, is deemed stateless in the eyes of the Lebanese government.
“Besides safety [concerns], we would be homeless,” she says. “I swear, if it was me and him only, alone, we wouldn’t be worried. We are still young; they refused us, fine, we’d go back. But now, with three kids, it’s going to be hard.”
Disillusioned with Canada’s immigration process and uncertain of what steps to take next, Chuheibar and Salhani have reached out to their community for help. Along with the sympathies of friends and a growing Facebook group of supporters, the couple has also gained the ear of their local MP, whose office is currently investigating their case.
Although Edmonton East MP Peter Goldring says his staff are exploring all options available to the couple, he explains the influx of immigrants and refugee claimants in Canada makes it impossible for every person in such a situation to be granted asylum.
“Immigration is going through, trying its very best,” Goldring says. “There’s been such a backlog of immigration and immigration problems that, going through many of these cases, unfortunately some of them just don’t qualify to be accepted.
“We do know a large, large number of people who want to come to Canada, and you just cannot possibly accept everybody.”
Goldring adds that this is not the first deportation case to pass through his office, and says circumstances such as Chuheibar’s and Salhani’s often depend upon whether or not newcomers follow Canada’s immigration rules when they enter the country.
“We do get a number of cases that do come through, and from a variety of reasons on why the removals are,” he says. “But, as I said, immigration have their rules, and unfortunately, many people—when they come into the country—they don’t follow the rules and get into problems like this.”
But despite their ordeal and their ongoing difficulties with the CIC, Chuheibar and Salhani said they harbour no ill will toward the country now forcing them to leave. Canada’s freedom of religion and multiculturalism are a luxury to the couple, who say they were previously accustomed only to danger and the constant uncertainty of life in Lebanon.
“The best things here: the freedom. You have freedom,” Chuheibar says.
Salhani adds that they are no different from the millions of families living in Canada—all they want is to secure a future for their children.
“We just want to be safe. We are just a normal family, raising their kids.”