Syrian family reunion bittersweet amid Canadian red tape

Syrian family reunion bittersweet amid Canadian red tape
Society: Canada's latest arrivals are being welcomed into the country, but those Syrians who entered under the previous administration are caught in a bureaucratic nightmare, reports Jillian Kestler D'Amours.
4 min read
14 April, 2017
Mohammad al-Rayyan (2R) and his wife Dima (white hijab) welcome his brother's family [Photo provided]
For months, Canadian airports have hosted scenes of unbridled joy and relief, as Syrian families separated by years of war and forced displacement have finally been reunited.

But what should have been a joyous event this week for Mohammad al-Rayyan and his family has been bittersweet.

Rayyan welcomed his brother and his brother's family to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, on Wednesday. But Mohammad's wife, Dima Siam, who is also a Syrian refugee, is still languishing under a deportation order that would send her back to the war-torn country.

"The irony is that they will arrive in Ottawa with permanent resident status… and Dima will be welcoming them with a deportation order to Syria still hovering over her head," said Rayyan, a Syrian-Canadian father of four.

He sponsored his brother, Ayman al-Rayyan, who came to Canada with his wife, Nadia Hameed, his son Yamen, nine, and his six-year-old daughter Lana, with the help of the United Church of Canada.
I consider [the United Church of Canada] to represent the real face of welcoming Canada

"Ayman's family and my family are very impressed with what the church has done," Rayyan said. Volunteers from the church also came to the airport to welcome his brother's family to Ottawa on Wednesday.

"I consider them to represent the real face of welcoming Canada," he said.

Bureaucratic nightmare

But while his brother's family begins to settle into life in Canada, his wife's bureaucratic nightmare continues.

It stems from a clerical error on her application for Canadian permanent residency, which was made shortly after she arrived in Canada with her family in late 2012.

The family had been living in Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, but decided to flee Syria when the war worsened in 2012. Rayyan, and his three young sons - Anas, Baraa, and Ahmad - already held Canadian passports, while Siam entered Canada on a visitor's visa.

As they began to resettle in Ottawa, Rayyan went on social assistance while he looked for employment. He also applied to sponsor his wife for permanent residency.

Canadian immigration officials told Rayyan, however, that he had to repay the money he received while on social assistance before Siam could be processed. But even after repaying thousands of dollars, her application was rejected.

Siam, a teacher with degrees in biology and education, was issued a deferred deportation order in 2015, and continued to live without legal status in Canada - a reality that made it impossible for her to find a job, enrol in English classes, or get provincial health services.

Last year, she was granted temporary residency after then-Immigration Minister John McCallum personally intervened in her case. At the time, Siam was pregnant and she needed legal status in order to access a hospital and healthcare.

The couple welcomed a baby girl, Maria, in December 2016.

But Siam's application for permanent residency based on humanitarian grounds is still being assessed, and immigration officials now say she must undergo a new background check, since the last one expired.

"Basically, we are going through an indefinite cycle of requirements," Rayyan said. "Requirements get expired and then we wait and wait and wait… [For] almost five years, she has been going through paperwork with Immigration Canada."

Since her temporary residency expires in June, Siam was also unable to renew her provincial health card, which expired in early April. She was forced to cancel a blood test and appointment with a doctor to follow-up on a thyroid problem.

Just overlooked

Canada has resettled more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since late 2015.
We can see the prime minister goes to the airport, welcomes Syrian refugees… But why didn't he start with the refugees who are already here?

But many Syrians who fled to Canada before the 2015 Canadian election - and before the Liberal government pledged to resettle thousands of refugees - or students who were in Canada when the war broke out and have not returned, have been left in limbo.

"They just got permanent residence while the Syrians who came right after the war started… they were just overlooked," Rayyan said.

"We can see the prime minister [Justin Trudeau] goes to the airport, welcomes Syrian refugees, and every day he welcomes Syrian refugees… But why didn't he start with the refugees who are already here?"

While more than 100 Syrians are believed to be living in Canada under deportation orders, Canadian officials put in place an administrative deferral of removals for Syrian nationals in early 2012.

That bars Canada from deporting Syrians due to the war, but does not cancel the deportation orders outright.

Meanwhile, Rayyan said forcing Siam to live without permanent status has taken a toll on his family, especially his children, who are anxious and have trouble focusing at school.

He urged Canada to grant his wife permanent resident status immediately, a demand that has the support of more than 22,000 signatories to an online petition. "There is no reason to delay," Rayyan said.

"We would expect the government to respect public opinion. When 22,000 people sign a petition and tell you this is wrong, this woman should be granted [permanent residency] immediately," he said.

"Are they trying to torture her to the point that she decides to leave on her own?"

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours