Five years of legal wrangling and eighteen months of asylum in the basement of a Toronto church finally paid off last week for a Palestinian family seeking legal status in Canada.
Seventy-one-year-old Nadim Bahsous and his four adult children, Jamal, 44, Faten, 36, Anwar, 34 and Elham, 31, have been living in the basement of a Catholic Maronite church, Our Lady of Lebanon, since March 27, 1998. According to Elham, they have been living on dry foods and sandwiches since then.
The family became stateless upon fleeing Palestine in 1948. Since then they have lived in Lebanon, Syria, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and, briefly, in the United States, before coming to Canada. They had no status in any of the countries and did not possess any passports or travel documents.
Upon arriving in Canada in 1995, the family sought refugee status. In January 1997, the Immigration and Refugee Board, the body set up to determine whether a person is a bona fide refugee, ruled that the family did not qualify. In its ruling, the board held that the family had endured discrimination and harassment "but not the serious harm to basic human rights that is normally equated to persecution..." The board also noted: "They currently have no legal right to enter any country in the world," but added that "sympathy is not a ground for a claim to [United Nations] Convention status."
Prior to the appeal board's decision, the family's appeals and applications to the Minister of Immigration on Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds were turned down. Two other members of the family than made an application to sponsor them for permanent residence. Nadim's son, Akram and daughter Olivia and her husband, Hanna, who recently obtained landed status after arriving from the United Arab Emirates, were eligible to sponsor the Bahsous family under a provision of Canadian Immigration law which allows a citizen or landed immigrant to sponsor his or her immediate family and their dependents. However, the application was rejected because the sponsorers did not have proof of income for 12 months in Canada. The local Arab community's offer to post a $100,000 bond to cover for this technicality and an offer to repay the $40,000 which the family had received in welfare payments were ignored by the government.
When the permanent residence application was turned down, the family appealed, leading to the September 7th ruling.
"When we got the news from our lawyer, we thought we were dreaming. I'm glad that we finally have a country we can call home and move on with our lives," says Elham Bahsous the family spokesperson.
The family is able to stay in Canada thanks to a law that allows them to apply for special relief based on humanitarian needs. It allows Elham's father and three siblings, who suffer from hereditary disabilities due to cerebellum atrophy to remain in Canada, but Elham is still awaiting word on her situation.
"The applicants are stateless, Nadim having been so for half a century. They have moved from their mother country without achieving permanent residence status," wrote the Immigration and Refugee Appeal Board in a 15-page decision.
"The outpouring of broad public support for the applicants when they sought refuge in the church basement is evidence that a reasonable person in Canada would want to relieve their misfortune," said Egya Sangmuah, a member of the appeal board.
The board recognized that the Bahsouses are a very close-knit family and said they made their decision based on a desire to keep the family together. But critics have said that if that was the case, Elham should have been given permission to stay as well.
(Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and a regular contributor to Iviews.com.)