Selem has not seen her children for almost seven years, and she is constantly afraid for their safety.
“My life is not strong,” she says in her limited English. “This life is not a life. Canada is good. I like Canada, but I don’t have my family.”
Selem is a refugee from Eritrea, having arrived in Nelson in May, 2015, sponsored and supported by the Kootenay Refugee Coalition. She has an apartment in Nelson and works as a housekeeper at the Best Western.
Selem’s children are 26, 22, 19, 16, and nine. The oldest is living in Eritrea, married and the parent of Selem’s three grandchildren whom she has never seen.
The others live together in an apartment in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which has recently turned violent with protests, a state of emergency, and a military crackdown on many civil liberties. The children are living in poverty, and their mother sometimes sends them money.
“Addis is not safe now,” she says, “and I am scared. I worry about them and I don’t sleep. I tell them not to go outside. It is dangerous.”
She talks to them on the phone occasionally.
“My youngest girl is crying every time, ‘Mom come over here.’”
Selem’s home country of Eritrea is one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. People who are forced to leave, like Selem, are in danger of being shot, so they don’t take their children with them, according to Madelyn MacKay of the refugee coalition. So they first get out of the country and then try to get the children out separately. The Star is not using Salem’s last name, due to her fear of repercussion for her children for speaking to the media.
Selem ended up in a refugee camp in Cairo, Egypt, and her children in a refugee camp on the Ethiopian border, but that turned out to be dangerous for the children, so they moved to Addis Ababa. Selem came from Cairo to Nelson as a refugee. When she was accepted as a refugee, Canadian government workers in Cairo told her that her children would follow within six months.
Reverend David Boyd of the refugee coalition explains that the federal government has a family reunification program, known as the One Year Window. When a refugee is accepted to Canada and has a family who are still in the country of origin or in a third country, the program will work to reunite the family. Refugees have one year after they come into Canada to apply under that program, and Selem applied not long after arriving here.
Since then, it’s been, “Wait, wait, wait,” Selem says. She sounds crushed by frustration and loneliness.
The coalition had to contact Selem’s children and get photos and documentation: not an easy task in a country on the verge of chaos. Since then they have made a series of attempts to find out the status of the application.
Not only are there no answers but there is no explanation for the delay and no time-line.
“Unfortunately they don’t give any acknowledgment other than that they received the application.” Boyd says. “We were told we are in the queue.”
But they were not told where in the queue.
“Last fall 25,000 Syrian refugees came,” Boyd says, “and anyone other than Syrian applications as far as I can tell were all back-burnered. Syrian refugees were pushed to the front. It is a great thing that we did, bringing in 25,000 Syrians, but it does mean that all the other refugees around the world that were hoping to come to Canada, or for people in the family reunification program, have all been delayed.”
In the case of African refugees, Boyd suspects racism.
“I have written to immigration minister John McCallum and to Prime Minister Trudeau, but no response. He was talking about how wonderful it is to have 25,000 Syrians so I reminded him about all the other refugees in the world that are looking to get out of horrible situations and Canada needs to do its part beyond what is has done for Syrians, especially in Africa. African refugees are seen as second class and I think there is some systemic racism at play in the refugee process.
“That is only my opinion, but I have been part of refugee processes for quite some time, and talking to people in other organizations, that seems to be the case.”
Boyd says Ethiopia has more refugees than any African country and “the relationship between Ethiopians and foreigners has historically been rocky, so there is a lot of fear they will be deported.”
Meanwhile a group of people in Nelson has come together to fundraise for the family while the application process is underway.
They have started a fundraising account at CIBC, set up an address for email transfers, and created a Paypal option. For more information contact Bobbi Ogletree at firstname.lastname@example.org.