TORONTO: Syrian Kurd claims Canadian officials “don’t care about Syrians”
Mike Wise of North York sold his home to get his mother and younger sister close to Canada. But federal foot-dragging meant they ended up in Sweden.
By: Peter Goodspeed Special to the Star, Published on Fri Sep 19 2014
Mike Wise sold his Toronto home two years ago to rescue his mother in war-torn Syria. He thought he had bought her freedom when she and Wise’s younger sister arrived in Cuba, just a three and a half hour flight from Toronto.
What he didn’t count on was Canada’s reluctance to offer sanctuary to Syrian war refugees.
Despite Wise’s five months of intense lobbying and appeals to senior cabinet ministers, officials refused to expedite his request to have his ailing, widowed mother, Shazia Khail Rashid, 66, and his sister, Sivin, 30, join him and three other brothers in Canada.
Instead, officials with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had to call on Sweden to rescue Wise’s family.
Now, a once close family is scattered around the world.
In March 2012, Wise, a Syrian Kurd called Mustafa Arab before he legally changed his name last year, was chairman of the GTA branch of the newly formed Syrian Canadian Council. He regularly led protests in Toronto against the blood-stained regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
As similar protests in Syria descended into civil war, Wise regularly telephoned his mother and sister in the country’s largest city, Aleppo, to make sure they were safe.
During one call in April 2012, he knew he had to act quickly to rescue them.
At the time, Cuba had one of the few embassies still functioning in Syria, and Wise managed to find a go-between who arranged to get his mother and sister Cuban tourist visas — for a total of $12,000.
On June 16, 2012, the women flew to Havana from Turkey, and upon their arrival turned themselves in to the UNHCR, requesting protection as refugees.
While Wise was spending the proceeds from the sale of his Toronto house on his mother’s and sister’s living costs in Cuba, he lobbied the Canadian government intensely to bring them here.
“I met with government officials in Ottawa on this,” he says. “I tried television (giving interviews to the CBC). I tried letters: to (Foreign Affairs Minister) John Baird, to (then-immigration minister) Jason Kenney, to (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper’s office. I met with MPs. We tried press conferences . . . There was no response, no answers. They couldn’t care less. They just don’t care about Syrians.”
Executive members of the Syrian Canadian Council, of which Wise was then a board member, held a private meeting with Kenney and raised the issue of Wise’s family and 21 other Syrians in Cuba who made similar escapes and had Canadian family connections.
“Most of them had families here in Canada . . . (who) can support them and take care of them,” Wise says. “But unfortunately, the only response from the government was to say, ‘We cannot do fast processing.’ ”
As the summer wound down, Cuba, one of the few remaining states loyal to the Assad regime, gave the UNHCR in Havana an ultimatum: find a country to resettle the Syrians within two months or they would be sent back to Syria.
Wise tried and failed again to get the government’s attention. With time running out on the Cuban deportation threat, he says, he telephoned officials at the UNHCR office in Cuba.
“They told me they had approached the Canadian government and told them these people had family members in Canada. But unfortunately, they (the Canadians) were saying they cannot do anything to process them. It would take a year and a half to two years to get them into Canada.”
As the Cuban deadline approached, desperate UN officials turned to Sweden for help, and the Swedish government agreed to grant permanent-residence status to 47 Syrians trapped in Havana, arranging their travel to Sweden in just under three weeks.
UNHCR officials refuse to comment on the case, other than to say, “UNHCR was aware of the situation and facilitated the resettlement of the group to Sweden.”
Canadian immigration says it can’t comment on individual refugee cases, and it has failed to respond to repeated requests for information on the case.
Wise can’t understand Canada’s reluctance to help.
Seven years ago, when he became a Canadian citizen, he had a maple leaf and the words “Proud to be Canadian” tattooed on his left shoulder.
Now, he has his doubts — ones shared by other Syrian Canadians.
“I think there is a political decision from the top of the hierarchy to take a step back from what is happening in Syria, and I think it is being applied not only on immigration and refugees but all over,” says Faisal Alazem, a spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council. “We have a very risk-averse government.