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Montreal refugee struggles every day apart from family, with no reunion in sight

Mohamed Nafeel left Sri Lanka after violence against the Muslim minority increased following the Easter bombings in 2019. He's now trying to get his family to join him in Montreal.

Mohamed Nafeel left Sri Lanka after violence against the Muslim minority increased following the Easter bombings in 2019. He's now trying to get his family to join him in Montreal.

Photo: (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

RCI

Mohamed Nafeel has been waiting 4 years for his wife and children to join him

Mohamed Nafeel has been waiting for years to be reunited with his family since fleeing Sri Lanka in 2019.

He says he and other Muslim business owners in his region were the targets of violent crimes (new window) after the Easter Sunday bombings (new window), leading him to make the difficult choice to leave his country alone.

I found myself facing a direct and imminent threat to my life, said Nafeel. I needed to flee to save myself and to save my family.

He couldn't afford airline tickets to bring everyone to Canada at once. But Nafeel never thought that after four years, it could still be years more before he and his wife and three children are reunited.

Nafeel was born and raised in Kattankudy, a seaside township near the city of Batticaloa on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. He worked in the textile industry and owned children's clothing stores.

He received refugee status the same year he arrived as an asylum seeker in Canada. In October 2021, he applied for his whole family to get permanent resident status.

But his family's application still hasn't been processed.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC)'s website, the estimated processing time for his family, who fall under the category of the dependents of protected persons is 48 months.

Nafeel holds a picture of himself alongside his wife, two sons and daughter. He hasn't seen his family in four years and fears he will have to wait several years more. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

Nafeel holds a picture of himself alongside his wife, two sons and daughter. He hasn't seen his family in four years and fears he will have to wait several years more.

Photo: (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

Nafeel said the thought of having to wait for two years or more for their reunion is heartbreaking.

I struggle emotionally every day without them, he said. Coming home to an empty apartment has been the most difficult.

Nafeel said it's hard to explain to his family why it's taking so long.

Every time I call my family, their first question is: 'When can we come to Canada?' he said. As I wait, I fear for their safety every day.

Long wait times

Federal Auditor General Karen Hogan released a report this fall (new window) that found most people applying for permanent residency in Canada are waiting a year or more to have their file processed by IRCC.

It found that privately sponsored refugees faced the longest average wait times of about three years.

What makes it more complex for refugees is that there is no set service standard, said Hogan.

So while Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada isn't meeting the service standard in the majority of their programs, refugees don't even know how long they might be waiting.

IRCC told CBC News in a statement that they are actively working to reduce processing times in the private sponsorship program. However, they said that processing times can vary due to factors that are beyond their control.

They added that since there are more applications than the yearly limit allows, the backlog increases.

The IRCC also referred to a new Permanent Residence Portal (new window) launched last month that helps refugees to apply for permanent residence online, and an amendment of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act which now allows the minister to give instructions for processing sponsorship applications.

Quebec selection delays

In Quebec, an extra step can cause additional delays.

A Quebec Selection Certificate is issued to an applicant once granted refugee status. And Quebec sets its own immigration limits, leading to longer wait times for immigrants and refugees intending to settle in the province.

Quebec's Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration did not respond to a request for comment.

Stéphanie Valois is an immigration lawyer working with refugees who've been waiting years to reunite with their family.

When I think of delays, I see my clients' faces … they show me photos of the children who are growing up without them and it's terrible, said Valois.

These children will become Canadians. They will come here, so I don't understand why we are making them wait.

Valois wants the government to introduce a visa allowing the family of recognized refugees to stay in Canada while waiting for their applications to be processed.

Mental health impacts

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Rachel Kronick says that constant fear for at-risk loved ones weighs heavily on family members.

I've seen devastating mental health impacts on parents themselves, said Kronick.

She said that people in Canada waiting for family often grapple with feelings of guilt and helplessness.

Imagine missing five to 10 to 14 years of your child's life and how complex it is to reconnect, said Kronick.

Hope for reunification

Guerdy Jean, a single mother from Haiti, applied for asylum in Montreal in 2017 and received refugee status that year.

Jean said it took six years to bring her son and daughter to Canada.

Being separated from my children was the most painful experience in my life, she said

She was reunited with her children in November 2022. When they arrived, she said pure joy overwhelmed her.

Jean said it's important for people in this situation to not give up and keep moving forward.

Nafeel hopes to be reunited with his family as soon as possible.

During a video call, his family said the first thing they want to do when they arrive in Canada is make up for lost time.

All they want, they said, is to be together as a family.

Sandra Hercegova (new window) · CBC News 

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