Amal Radha was ecstatic when, after four painstaking years of searching, she tracked down family members who had gone missing amidst the chaos of the Syrian civil war.
But the Toronto woman’s euphoria about the impending reunification turned quickly to despair when she discovered her two widowed sisters and three nephews were no longer eligible for private sponsorship to Canada.
As native Iraqis who had fled conflict in their homeland to live as refugees in Syria, they were evacuated from a United Nations camp in Damascus in 2014 during the height of the Syrian civil war and sent back to Iraq. And with that, they were “refugees” no more, but rather displaced people within their own borders.
“They don’t have anything in Iraq now,” said Radha, 56, who arrived in Canada in 2009. “The government has taken our house. Their husbands were killed in the conflicts. Iraq is still not safe. Nobody can go out. There is still a lot of kidnappings and killings. My nephews have not been in school for years.”
According to a UN report, more than 1.5 million people are currently displaced within Iraq and have been in that situation for more than three years. The number has risen since 2014 in the wake of terror attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
To date, Canada’s immigration department has twice rejected — and Radha has twice appealed — a private sponsorship undertaken by the Anglican United Refugee Alliance and Runnymede United Church. A third application, under a special provision to resettle vulnerable women and children who are internally displaced within their own country, has been languishing since 2018.
In the meantime, Radha’s sister Feryal, 42; Nawal, 46, and her three sons, Basheer, 16, Baraa, 14, and Sudad, 11, are all together in Baghdad.
“This urgent situation has been going on for this family for too long,” said Lynne Salt, co-ordinator of the refugee sponsorship group at Toronto’s Runnymede United Church. “We are ready and willing to help them to have a new life in Canada, but we haven’t been able to bring them together. We feel so helpless and frustrated.”
Immigration officials were unable to comment on the family’s sponsorship application citing privacy concerns.
Radha, her sisters and nephews originally fled to Syria from Iraq following the American-led invasion to overthrow ruler Saddam Hussein. When Radha, a former clerk at the Iraqi health ministry, was resettled to Canada, she promised her family she would help them to join her. She spent years looking for private refugee sponsorship groups willing to resettle her sisters and nephews before connecting with the Runnymede United Church group in 2014.
But in early 2015, her family was moved by the UN from Syria to a refugee camp near Mosul, Iraq. They subsequently lost touch with Radha. The following year, Radha made a trip to Iraq after learning local mosques had set up camps for refugees repatriated from war-torn Syria. After more than a month of door-knocking with photos of her sisters and nephews in hand, she finally located them all except sister Nawal.
Nawal had been separated from the rest of the family in Mosul when the city was under siege by ISIS.
Despite her tireless efforts to find Nawal through a network of former colleagues from the Iraqi health ministry, Radha was unable to locate her sister and presumed she was dead.
Then last June, someone through Radha’s network of contacts found Nawal’s name on a patients’ list of a Mosul hospital and emailed Radha the woman’s photo. It was Nawal. Last July, Radha flew to Iraq to see her.
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“I tried to hug Nawal, but she was too scared and paranoid, and didn’t recognize me,” said a teary Radha. “I told her I’m Amal, your sister. The first thing she said to me was, ‘Are my three boys still alive?’”
It was then Radha learned that her sister had been captured by ISIS and held with other women, most of them Yazidi, until mid-2017 when the terrorists withdrew from Mosul and the allied forces liberated the city.
“It’s a miracle that the family was reunited,” said Tom Axworthy, principal secretary and chief speech writer to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who is part of the Runnymede church sponsorship group that’s been urging the immigration department to take mercy on the family.
“We hope they can take into account what this family has gone through and how they have persevered.”