Canada’s missing Syrians


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May 14, 2018
Syrian refugees Ahmad, left, and his father, Yassin, in Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo by Maya Hautefeuille

Though Canada has accepted some 50,000 Syrian refugees since late 2015, many have had pending cases for just as long.

Over the past year, journalist Gareth Chantler interviewed several Syrians stuck in limbo in Turkey. The voices of these refugees are seldom heard, and their experiences expose a deeply problematic intake process within the Canadian refugee system.

Part One: Yassin

Yassins funeral was well attended. In Syrias rural Idlib province, his family and friends gathered under a tent in his parentsbackyard, drank tea, and recited the prayer of the absent. It had been eight months since Nour, Yassins wife, saw him ordered off the bus at a checkpoint far from home, as they were making their way north from Damascus. No one had heard of her husband since that day.  

At the time, the governments warren of prisons was overflowing with men like Yassin, suspected of what was a widespread phenomenon: desertion. His extended family and their social network had asked every released detainee they could — had anyone come across Yassin during their detention? But no one had. 

A staff sergeant in the Syrian Arab Army, Yassin had been following the same routine for years. For at most three hours a day, he led his divisions soldiers in their fitness and marching exercises. The balance of his six-hour shift was spent in his office drinking tea, watching television, playing on his cell phone. 

But in the spring of 2012, with Nour seven months pregnant, their Damascus neighbourhood saw constant demonstrations, and, increasingly, violent government suppression. Worse, Yassins unit had received new orders. In the coming weeks, they were to fire on unarmed demonstrators. He decided to take his young wife home, by bus, to Idlib. 

On the day of his funeral, Yassin was in fact alive, 300 km to the south, and just starting to walk again. For the previous five months he had been seated cross-legged, shuffling on his hands. First, he had been detained in the military prison known as Branch 93. After two months of interrogation, torture, and false confession, he was transferred to the now-infamous Sednaya Prison. In his first week there, one of the guards beat him with a steel rod hard enough to break the heel of his left foot. 

In Sednaya, Yassin’s torturers never asked him questions. They stuffed him into a tire and beat him. They hung him from the ceiling. Sometimes they electrocuted him. The schedule of torture seemed random. He had a number and it was his turn if the number was called. Upon arrival, they had told him he could be killed at any moment, no questions asked, as part of his field sentence.With time, his fellow detainees emaciating and dying, Yassin accepted the inevitable. 

Five months after his funeral, word reached Idlib that there were soldiers detained and alive in Sednaya. Yassin’s parents paid the equivalent of $20,000 in bribes to prison officials to learn with certainty that he was among them. 

One day, another nine months on, the guards called in Yassin and 200 other prisoners. No one knew why. They hosed them down in cold water and gave them pyjamas. Then the prisoners were told that Bashar al-Assad had taken mercy on them, and they were free to return to the army as if nothing had happened. Yassin was sent directly from the prison to his unit in Damascus. He reported, weak and dishevelled, to a commander whom he had never met. He asked for two days off to shower and shave at his cousin’s house. Seeing his wretched state, the commander gave Yassin two weeks. 

Yassin met up with an old friend in a neighbourhood of southern Damascus over which the Assad regime, in absolute power in Syria since 1970, was losing its control. In an attempt to get home to Idlib without being detected, the friend led him on a circuitous journey. What would ordinarily be a day or two trip lasted two months and 10 days. They crossed mountains, slept in friendly houses and in forests. Avoiding all the checkpoints took patience, especially since new ones were constantly popping up. 

Finally, Yassin met the son his wife had been carrying when they saw each other last. Two-year-old Ahmad couldn’t recognize a man he’d never seen. For his part, Yassin didn’t recognize Idlib, which had been decimated in his absence. He spent seven months convalescing, but his leg and heel did not improve. And though it was no longer controlled by the Assad regime, conditions across Idlib province were deteriorating.

The small family made the decision to leave, paying a smuggler and becoming three of the over three million Syrians taking refuge in neighbouring Turkey. 

Turkey
A view of Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo by Maya Hautefeuille

Over 90 percent of Turkey’s Syrian refugees are like Yassin, Nour and Ahmad — living outside refugee camps, usually in poverty and improvised housing. The smuggler had taken them directly to Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey about the size of Montreal, where 400,000 Syrians now suddenly lived. 

Shortly after they arrived, the Turkish Red Crescent (TRC) canvassed the family’s new ramshackle neighbourhood. Finding Yassin disabled with a young wife and a child, it referred them to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for resettlement abroad. 

The Canadian program to resettle Syrians had just begun, four years after the first refugees came to Turkey, because one of them, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, had washed up, face down, on the front page of every newspaper around the world in September 2015. Months later, the resettlement program was in full swing.

Yassin’s young family was matched with Beaches Presbyterian Church, a private sponsorship group in Toronto, through Canada’s Blended Visa Office Referral (BVOR) program. 

Their file had been opened December 19, 2015, following an appointment in Gaziantep, and they were interviewed by a Canadian officer and a translator the next day in nearby Adana. Things moved quickly then and Canadian officials relied on third-party translators, often ones the IOM referred. 

In the Adana interviews, only one person in the Canadian contingent could speak Arabic. She did not interview Yassin and Nour. The other Canadians conducted interviews through a translator with whom most had no prior working experience. Interpreters were “to provide verbatim translation” per Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) guidelines. 

The newly elected Liberal government would fall short of the 25,000 Syrians it had promised to resettle before the close of 2015, but reached the mark by February 2016. It took a mere four months for those first 25,000 to arrive and 24 more for the next 25,000. 

Concerns around lengthy processing times and documented inconsistencies in security screenings aside, when the process of accepting Syrian refugees to Canada works in accordance with the current 2001 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, immigration officers are refusing Syrians for reasons at odds with Canadian values. These decisions often explicitly privilege state actors such as the Assad regime — by citing the act — while determining inadmissible to Canada those who resist state violence (even peacefully), as well as their families. Over 350 cases have been deemed inadmissible since the inception of the Syrian resettlement program. 

Further, the process is entirely vulnerable to manipulation by unchecked translators who are not always disinterested in Canada’s inadmissibility determinations.

Over the past two and a half years, Yassin, having escaped Sednaya Prison for Gaziantep, has found himself caught up in all of this.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on December 20, 2015, in Adana’s Sheraton Hotel, Yassin and Nour were warned the audio from their interview was being recorded, and that they should therefore be careful to tell the truth, since the Canadians had sources inside Syria. There appeared to be a microphone in the converted hotel room and the couple had little reason to think the Canadians were bluffing. 

Not long after, in response to being asked whether Yassin (the ‘principal applicant,’ or PA) had commanded anyone, the Iraqi translator explained to the typing Canadian officer, “PA was more like a trainer for soldiers, for recruits, how to handle missiles.” The Canadian did not ask for clarification and moved on. He did not know it at the time, but Yassin had been quoted on something he had not precisely said. 

In the weeks and months that followed, a framed picture of the young family from Idlib would appear facing church pews, all the way in Toronto, every Sunday.

The congregation of Beaches Presbyterian had experience with sponsorship before. They previously helped a same-sex couple settle in Canada from Iran. But after a year there was no news of an arrival date. The congregation began to worry. When were Yassin, Nour and Ahmad coming? 

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Part Two: Musa

Tadmur, an isolated desert prison, is a name Syrians will avoid saying out loud. Most of the stories from there, where Musa spent 15 months, are too brutal to repeat here. 

Musa’s experience began in early 2011 when he was re-conscripted in his 30s, as Assad needed manpower to suppress what was nearly the last revolution of the Arab Spring. In April 2012, by then on an indefinite tour, far from his family, it became clear that his postponed leave was never coming. Stationed near Lebanon, Musa deserted and made a run for the border with a few others. They were unlucky, caught by a random patrol the same day. 

He spent some time in solitary confinement in Tadmur. The high-ceilinged cell, two metres long, was narrower than his arm span.

I only ate half my food. I gave half to the cockroaches, in the end near the hole where you do your business, so they could leave me alone. At night, I would hear them eating. Sometimes, I hear the cockroaches eating now, when I sleep. And I wake up scared and worried. I smoke and try to fall back asleep, but sometimes I cant. I was there 15 or 20 days. You lose track because they cover the hole in the ceiling where the light comes in. You cant tell if its day or night.” 

Most of the men imprisoned with him in Tadmur were a decade his junior. 

You know men in this age only think about two things: cars and sex,he recalls. So I would tell them those stories, write stories with each of them as a character. Sometimes they would cry with the hero, sometimes they would laugh.

Once workaholic lawyers in Aleppo, Musa and his wife Lubna can now be found in Antakya, Turkey, at a kidscentre in one of the city’s churches. He dresses smartly, wears a ponytail, and struts from place to place like the coffee and cigarettes-fuelled professional he once was. 

Usually we are there from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.,he says. I discovered that I have a gift for working with children.” 

The couple, along with their two children, live in a nondescript apartment owned by the church. Their monthly salaries — $500 Canadian combined — are funded by the pastors donor base in South Korea.

At dinner the family says grace. Afterwards the kids perform a duet, singing ‘Baby Shark.’

We laugh to forget,Musa explains

Musa
Musa, at right, his wife Lubna, and their two children, in Turkey.

IRCC received Musas family file shortly after Yassins, on December 29, 2015. But unlike Yassin and Nour, who are BVOR, because Musa and Lubna are Government Assisted Refugees (GAR), there is no congregation, nor group of any kind, expecting them. No one is beseeching their local member of parliament to look into the hold up.

Musa’s tongue, equally quick in English and Arabic, had the Canadian officer asking him to slow down during the couples interview at Ankaras five-star Swissôtel. The translator present at the interview, who was hardly called upon, was also from the IOM. 

Musa recalls how they gave the most honest answers possible to the officer, despite hearing that others did not. There was much speculation among Syrians of the best strategy. Should they appear more dishevelled than they otherwise would be? One Syrian advised Musa not to shave, but he did shave the morning of the interview, feeling he could not misrepresent himself. My wife tells me one problem we had is we cant lie, that if I could lie like the others, wed be in Canada already!” 

Other Syrian families had been advised that they could be travelling within a week or two; that they should get ready. Their interview concluded, Lubna asked if they too should ready themselves. When the Canadian officer said no, she began to cry. Under normal circumstances, the officer apparently scolded her, it would have taken the family years just to get the appointment.

Three weeks ago we had a bit of crisis,” Musa mentioned privately, over Antakyas famous künefe, in late October 2017. They were thinking of paying a smuggler to get to Greece by boat. Since the EU-Turkey deal, under which Syrians entering Europe via Turkey are refused and returned, this is bound to fail: it was unthinkable and desperate. He couldnt do it anyways, he sighed. My wife can’t swim.” 

"Some are still there, questioning two years on if their pending resettlement is even real."

In Antakya alone there were scores of Syrians given GAR designation in late 2015 and early 2016. Some are still there, surviving in Turkey without full rights, questioning two years on if their pending resettlement is even real. But during the long silences between generic communications from the Canadian government, many boarded boats to Greece and took their chances. Many tried going home and some of them were killed in Syria. A few were refused, deemed inadmissible.

In February, the Canadian embassy finally answered Musa, who had been asking steadily for an update. The file was being reviewed by a third-party for security clearance purposes, they said. Therefore, the timeline was out of their hands. 

It was the same language, verbatim, that Beaches Presbyterian received from IRCC, in their long wait to learn that Yassin would be re-interviewed. 

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Part Three: Lost in translation

Two winters, two springs, two summers and a fall had passed in Gaziantep following the interview in Adana before Yassin received any communication whatsoever from the Canadian embassy. 

A second interview was conducted over the phone. There were two people on the line with Yassin on August 24, 2017: a translator from Egypt and the Canadian officer in Ankara. Overall, Yassin felt it went well. They were not in a rush. The call was even dropped near enough to the end that he thought they might not call back, but they did. The Egyptian translator was sympathetic and cheerful. 

But Yassin knew something had gone wrong in the first interview at some point during the second. During my military service,he explains, I was a fitness and marching coach and I was working at the department of missiles management. I dont know how to use this weapon. This was wrongly translated to the Canadian officer.

On paper, IRCC is not oblivious to translation being a potential vulnerability in their process. Publicly available policy, procedures and guidance” used by IRCC mention many post-interview complaints claim that interpreters misconstrued what was said, or omitted important points.

When, during the second interview, Yassin told the Canadian officer he did not train anyone to use missiles, but was rather a trainer in a division that had the word missiles in its name, he was told they considered him to be changing his answers. 

I am concerned that you are not being straightforward with me regarding your activities in the military…” the officer said, according to the government’s notes obtained for this article. You previously indicated that you were involved in training regarding missiles and today you said you were only doing sports training.Yassin admitted that he could not remember everything in the 19 months that had elapsed, but repeated, My duty was just sports training.” 

Yassin had tried avoiding sectarian talk during that first interview, particularly after the translator introduced himself as a Shia from Iraq who knew the couple was Sunni. But in establishing a refugee narrative, such interviews feature loaded questions such as, What was the dominant religion in the area you lived in?” “What were each side fighting for?” “Who was winning?

Because they perceived a disparity between Yassins answers, a Canadian officer found him and his family inadmissible to Canada, citing section 16(1) of 2001's Immigration Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). The section begins, A person who makes an application must answer truthfully all questions put to them.” 

Then, to further justify Yassins refusal in their notes, the Canadian officer reasoned, It seems implausible that he would, for four years, train soldiers in sports during the morning and do nothing for the remainder of the day.But this was not the case. In that second interview, to the question, What else was the rest of your duty?Yassin did in fact answer, Teaching people how to march.” 

Yassin 2
Syrian refugee Yassin, with his wife, Nour, and son Ahmad, in Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo by Maya Hautefeuille

For the sake of clarity, the following was Yassins daily routine: Every morning, he took soldiers through their fitness routine, running, stretching, pushups and situps, 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. There were then two slots on the schedule for marching practice, 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. He would be scheduled to lead one of these, but on some days both would be taken by a fellow staff sergeant. Whenever he wasnt conducting marching, Yassin would be in the staff sergeants’ office. The rest of the day” in Syria, the skeptical Canadian officer could have discovered, lasted until 1:30 or 2 p.m. at the latest. 

Any of a million people could have provided context, had they been asked, that no government employee in Syria would have worked into the late afternoon. Many had second jobs outside a sprawling, corrupt public sector that sought to keep unemployment artificially low. The Canadian officers notes, justifying Yassin’s inadmissibility, read often like the speculations of a diarist. Syria would have been as they imagined. 

You did not indicate that you had any difficulty in understanding the translator or in having the translator understand you,” reads each rejection letter. Understanding the translator is of course besides the point. On account of not speaking the others language, neither Yassin nor the officer at either interview would be in a position to judge the quality of the translation itself.

I didnt understand what he said,” Yassin recalls of the first interview, but I know that to translate what I said didnt require that much talking. I felt that he took a long time, but I dont have the ability to stop him.

If the audio from the first interview was not recorded, there would be no way for the Canadians to ascertain to what extent Yassin may have suffered from mistranslation. But the audio was recorded. And thus far that recording has not been made available to Yassin, his sponsorship group, or his legal representation. In fact, the latter two groups have been led to believe no recording ever existed.

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Part Four: Waleed Taleb, Khaldoun Sinjab, and section 34

Waleed Taleb remembers something seeming off the day Canadian officials interviewed him and his wife at the embassy in Ankara. It was February 2016, and for Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSR) such interviews are one of the most crucial steps to clear a security check and ultimately be approved for resettlement in Canada. 

They said come at 7:30 [a.m],Taleb, a communications specialist, remembers. Our interview was done at 2 p.m. We were the only ones with kids and they were crying. They got hungry. There was nothing except water. The Canadians said if you go out of the embassy, you cannot come back. My son is diagnosed as hyperactive and was crying to go home.” 

I had to speak in English to explain my answers, because he was using the wrong words,Taleb recalls, referring to the Lebanese translator present at the interview. He wasnt helping me. I remember he asked questions from his own.

The translator was pushing me to say something wrong. He wasn’t translating for the officer. He was asking me with the officer. After we finished, my wife asked me, did you notice the translator, how [much of an] asshole he was?”

The family was told a follow-up call with instructions for flying to Canada could come in a matter of weeks. And indeed a friend, interviewed in the embassy that same day, travelled two weeks later. But for Taleb, only silence followed. 

This was hard for my family, for my kids, even for my sponsorship group,he said in late October 2017. They are suffering like we did.

My group is perfect,he added, unprompted, and they changed my mind about a lot of ideas. Like, in my group there is a lady who is a Jew. She is the best of them, wallah! You know in Syria that [the state] told us that the Jew is not good. No, actually I changed my mind about that.” 

I love Canada because of them. The sponsorship group tried very hard to get an answer, very hard. They tried to talk to the PM!” 

Waleed
Photo courtesy of Waleed Taleb

In the summer of 2017, more than a year after his interview, Taleb, represented in Toronto by lawyer Pierre-André Thériault, received a fairness letter,’ from a nameless immigration officer.

In particular, I have concerns that you are a member of the inadmissible class of persons described in section 34(1)(b) & (f) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) due to your past activities and past employment with the Syrian National Coalition,” it read.

On May 31, 2013, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a political body aspiring to become the legitimate government of Syria, allowed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed group working towards the disposal of Assad, 15 seats on their council. It was a decision Taleb, as communications director, opposed publicly in an open letter that was published online. 

I can understand if I trained to use weapons, or worked with [an] armed group. But I have never touched a weapon in all my life, and never supported the violence as an option,” Taleb says. After FSA membership on the council was finalized, Taleb resigned from his job.

The SNC received direct support in terms of training from the Canadian foreign missions in Turkey,” Thériault points out. For the [Canadian] government to reject, for security reasons, refugees who have worked in IT or in communications for the coalition — essentially the internationally recognized Syrian government in exile — is just baffling.

Taleb says a few friends were sent the same letter — “cut and paste” — by the Canadians. The one for [a friend] is exactly same as mine.” Another Syrian refugee who received the fairness letter was only working as a freelance photographer,” but was deemed inadmissible to Canada after they answered its questions. It is crazy.” 

The Canadian government would not comment on the case.

We cannot speculate on various scenarios,” Faith St. John wrote on behalf of IRCC and its current minister, Ahmed Hussen, when asked to comment in late 2017 on the broad strokes of the cases detailed in this story. We will not compromise the safety and security of Canadians by accepting a resettlement application until all requirements have been met.

But, as Osgoode Hall Law Schools Angus Grant points out in his 2016 study of section 34’s prior invocations, “virtually no cases brought under s34 actually relate to individuals who are even alleged to constitute a threat to Canadian national security.

As if to illustrate that point exactly, a Syrian activist, well known as Peaceful Khaled,” was recently deemed inadmissible to Canada under section 34. In their official case notes, Canadian officers found him wholly credible. They believed him when he said, for instance, I not only never supported armed opposition to the Assad regime — I publicly advocated for pacifist opposition.

But because Khaled, before he fled Syria and became a refugee in Lebanon (after a bomb fell in his backyard), had worked for his hometowns local council, and since his hometown had during that period fallen out of the control of the Assad regime, he was therefore a party to the subversion of a sovereign dictator and inadmissible to Canada. Or so IRCCs chain of reasoning goes. 

This is not about security,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBCs Matt Galloway in November 2015 of the Syrian resettlement effort. Security is an issue that we are dealing with,” he continued, that we have dealt with, but this is about welcoming peoplefleeing terrorism, not bringing terrorism with them.

Tim Wichert, a lawyer who represents Khaldoun Sinjab, another would-be PSR and another pacifist, says the 2001 law is being applied overzealously. 

The immigration officers seem to be going to great lengths to interpret [IRPAs provisions] even more broadly than what the law suggests, or than logic dictates.

[A]ny association has been interpreted as membership. And even more limited connections and involvements with Syrian opposition groups have been interpreted as subversion,’ because [those opposition groups] are trying to overthrow a government,’ i.e. the Assad regime… It’s preposterous.” 

My work was purely technical,” Sinjab, who is quadriplegic, explains. A freelance programmer, he worked remotely from his confines in Lebanon, for someone who was under contract with SNC. But Sinjab was never under any contract himself. I never added content to the website,” he adds. I only secured the website.” Sinjab was refused on account of 34(1)(b) & (f). 

Najafi v Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, a 2014 ruling by Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal, looked at section 34 closely after Behzad Najafi, an Iranian of Kurdish ethnicity, was declared inadmissible to Canada. The ruling found that the Canadian government was within its rights to cite section 34 if it suspects the applicant worked to subvert” a government, no matter how illegitimate the government or how legitimate the subversion.

The words any government’ include even a despotic regime, and that the government’s actions, however oppressive, are not relevant to the analysis,” the ruling reads. Even if [that government] is oppressive and racist.” 

But not every foreign regime is treated equally in inadmissibility decisions. Furthermore, Grant found the process vulnerable to executive manipulation” and that IRCCs discretion plays a central role… in the determination as to who will and who will not become subject to s34 proceedings.

In other words,” Thériault argues, “inadmissibility provisions are being applied in a discriminatory manner.” 

In his study, Grant recommends oversight from an independent body to address the “vulnerability of security decision-makers to overt, top-down political suasion.

Long before IRCC began processing Syrians for resettlement in late 2015, before refugees were being denied resettlement for supposedly trying to subvert the Assad regime, Global Affairs Canada (formerly the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade) was loudly censorious of that same regime. 

“One of the most fundamental responsibilities that governments have is to protect their people. Assad for more than a year now has waged war on his own people," John Baird, then minister of foreign affairs, said in 2012. Canada’s current foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, announced new sanctions against individuals in the Assad regime as recently as April 2017. 

“Last week’s chemical weapons attack in southern Idlib is a war crime and is unacceptable," she stated at the time, speaking on the Assad regimes use of sarin gas against civilians in Idlibs Khan Sheikhoun. That attack was, as it happens, about half an hours drive from Yassin’s parents’ house.

"I felt like once they had reached their quota, the government packed their bags and left, leaving all of the rest of us hanging."

Following US strikes in retaliation for the attack, Trudeau said, “Canada fully supports the United States’ limited and focused action to degrade the Assad regimes ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against innocent civilians, including many children.

When Sinjabs case became public this past summer, a pro-Assad outlet published an article titled Canada is refusing to accept any Syrian as an opponent of the Syrian State,” painting the paralyzed computer programmer as being punished by IRCC for political dissent. Assad supporters then inundated Sinjab through social media with death threats. 

As the government’s case files and her fellow would-be sponsors attest, Torontos Jennifer McGregor moved mountains to get information out of IRCC on the status of Sinjab and his wife and kids. There were long periods of silence before the inadmissibility decision was even made. In the end,” McGregor says, I felt like once they had reached their quota, the government packed their bags and left, leaving all of the rest of us hanging. It was cold.

Meanwhile in Istanbul, Taleb received anonymous threats on his cell phone. I moved my home four timesI always feel like I am in danger. Threats like, We know you, we know where you live. Your son is going to school…’” 

When ISIS first appeared in Syria, Taleb used his professional skills to run a social media awareness campaign. I used all the resources to tell [Syrians] what ISIS are really. That those are monsters.” 

Since he is critical of both, Taleb cannot be sure if the phone calls were from ISIS or Assad loyalists — public support for Canadian values like democracy and human rights automatically makes any Syrian an enemy of both. 

After the Canadians did not call, Taleb began marketing Istanbul’s affordable hair transplant services to gulf state cliental for a Turkish doctor running a big operation. After two years, he has over 50 employees. His Syrian passport expired, he accomplished this while effectively stateless. He had nothing on paper, no contract, and, as a result, no protection. But because of his talent and experience, his services are in high demand. Most Syrians in Turkey are not so fortunate. 

I dont have any legal paper to stay here in Turkey. I cannot go out,” Taleb explains, because I cannot come back in.” 

Despite everything, he kept his children enrolled in one of Istanbul’s British private schools, so that their English will be strong, should they arrive to Canada in the end. 

I wish the answer would be yes,” he sighs, but even no would be good. The sick person, at some point, he will wish he will die. To die would be merciful for him, something to stop the suffering. Right now the refusal is like dying, but it is better than what I am now!

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Part Five: Tip of an iceberg

Much has worked against the Canadians in Turkey. Initially, Syrian refugees were recommended for Canadian resettlement by the Turkish Red Crescent together with UNHCR Turkey. As a result, a natural proportion of highly skilled and educated Syrians found themselves on the BVOR and GAR lists. 

Midway through the process, the Turkish Ministry of Interior’s Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) gained exclusive power to forward names to the Canadians. No Syrian in Turkey with an advanced university degree would find themselves a part of the GAR or BVOR program after that. More importantly, some Syrians who had been far enough along in the process to have a resettlement visa for Canada in hand were blocked by Turkish authorities from leaving the country. DGMM sought to retain talented, educated Syrians in Turkey, while particularly vulnerable Syrians could be offloaded to Canada.  

When they began interviewing prospective Syrians for GAR and BVOR status, the Canadians, had they any knowledge of Syrias diverse dialects, did not do anything about it. The process gave insufficient consideration to the potential vulnerability that arises from confessional mismatches between third-party translators and refugees. 

There are Syrians in Toronto today who began interviews, as Taleb did, speaking Arabic. But they switched to English, their future on the line, to speak to the Canadian officer directly. They did so because they were hearing themselves being detrimentally mistranslated. Yassin, with so much at stake, did not have the same opportunity

Anyone with the right resources can request a judicial review. A favourable judicial review cannot bring Yassin and his young family to Canada immediately, but will mean IRCC evaluates his case anew. Further examples abound. Across the hundreds of cases of Canadian officers justifying inadmissibility decisions are commensurate justifications for Angus Grants description, in his study, of IRCC as a security regime that is suspicious of context.

The process for ruling Syrians inadmissible not only excuses frequent and avoidable mistakes made by Canadian officers, but the process transfers the burden of explanation onto refugees themselves. Meanwhile judicial reviews strain the finances of groups as affluent as Beaches Presbyterian. Many refugees and groups do not have the resources to pursue a judicial review. IRCC’s mistakes, then, fully externalize and disappear, never registering with any part of the government.

The Canadian government no longer has quotas specific to Syrians, but as of December 2017, IRCC reported it had “applications for 20,000 sponsored Syrian refugees” still to process. The UNHCR estimates that over five million Syrians are still in need of resettlement from countries outside of Syria, while over six million remain internally displaced.

Klaas Kraay, a professor at Ryerson and congregant at Beaches Presbyterian, worries that the government has calculated that there is little further political benefit to be extracted from our response to the worldwide refugee crisis and that, for this reason, Canada will do far, far less than it can.

Like Yassin, Sinjab’s judicial review is pending. Taleb waits in Istanbul while IRCC weighs his answer to their fairness letter. Everyone he knows who received that same fairness letter was already ruled inadmissible. Musa and his family wait in limbo on a decision as well.

Yassin works nights, illegally, at a furniture factory on the outskirts of Gaziantep. He takes a painkiller for his leg before each shift. Recently his son, sick since last summer, had his tonsils removed, while Nour had to have her appendix out late last year. 

Throughout the writing of this article, Yassins parents have been trying to escape Syria. The frontline is nearing their village and the bombing of Idlib, ongoing for years, has recently intensified. They were turned back at the border in January, Turkey having closed it long ago.

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