Canadian volunteers secretly interview migrants in Jordan. A lucky few will make it to Canada
In Jordan, a group of Canadian volunteers secretly interview desperate migrants. With their blessing, a lucky few will make it to Canada.
AMMAN, JORDAN—They look like any other group of tourists, with cameras slung around their necks, and water bottles and guidebooks stuffed in their backpacks. This is a disguise they will work scrupulously to maintain.
If word were to leak out that these eight Canadians — the only Canadian group in the trenches — are here to select refugees to come to Canada, their modest $30-a-night downtown Amman hotel could suddenly become a target for every refugee in the city. Their two-week mission would be in jeopardy, and could result in their immediate expulsion.
They remain low-key, working behind closed doors in a hotel room, and later, in offices at the Jesuit Centre, using volunteer Sudanese translators, who are themselves refugees.
“We are the voice of the voiceless,” said Pauline Murphy, 58 and a lay pastoral associate from St. Anthony of Padua parish in Brampton. “We would like to scoop up all the refugees and bring them to Canada, but we know it is just not possible.”
Being selected is like winning the lottery. Just one per cent of the 630,000 Syrian refugees and about five per cent of the 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan stand a chance of being resettled in the West. The rest are expected to wait out the war, and then return to their homelands.
In theory, Canada is doing its own refugee selection, taking in especially vulnerable cases referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau has promised to expand the target to 25,000 (from 10,000), and to devote an additional $100 million for refugee processing and resettlement in order to bring them all to Canada by the end of the year.
But for now, the Canadian team — all volunteers for the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT) — is the only group on the ground, and the team knows from experience how complex the task is. ORAT will prepare a list of mini profiles for parishes responding to Project Hope, the Archdiocese’s $3-million emergency appeal to resettle 100 families, and for Lifeline Syria/ Ryerson University, which hopes to accept 250 families over two years. But they must wait for Ottawa to sign off on all cases; immigration officials at the embassy in Amman must conduct interviews, security and medical checks, a process that until recently took six to nine months.
On the first night, Martin Mark, ORAT’s director and a seasoned veteran, assembles the team on the hotel’s rooftop patio. It is deserted except for three pet rabbits who hop around begging for food. Against the backdrop of a muezzin’s prayer call, and the twinkling lights from homes on the hills surrounding the downtown, he conducts a briefing. “Remember to read the refugee’s eyes, watch the body language and be tough with your time,” he says. “Use common sense and lead the conversation. Their stories have to be specific and detailed.”
They must analyze the refugees’ stories and characters dispassionately; it is a delicate balancing act between empathy and scrutiny. They are looking for the neediest, people with no relatives in Canada. But the refugees must also be resilient enough to adjust to a new country with -20C winters, where gay marriage and working women are the norm.
Many will be extremely vulnerable. The Assad regime has killed thousands, slaughtered children, tortured civilians and used chemical weapons to attack towns. The crimes committed by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS are similarly horrific. Mark advises the team against pressing for excessive details from those who have been tortured or sexually assaulted. There are no psychologists on the team; they must guard against derailing the interview, as well as their own vicarious traumatization.
The eight volunteers — two teachers from Barrie, an immigration consultant, two women from the Brampton parish and three from ORAT’s office — go to bed feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement at the prospect of giving some of the city’s anguished souls a sense of hope.
“On the one hand, you could change a refugee’s life; on the other hand, it could be really disappointing for them,” says Christine Ignas, a willowy 39-year-old teacher who chairs the refugee committee at St. Mary’s Church in Barrie. “You have to steel yourself.”
The next morning, the team gathers at the Jesuit Centre, located about 20 minutes from the hotel. Contacts in the aid community have referred two-dozen cases. The refugees arrive at staggered times to avoid drawing a crowd.
The team’s cover is that they are here to write a report on services for urban refugees, who comprise 85 per cent of the population in Jordan (the rest are in camps where food and housing are provided).
Linda Raffin, a big-hearted retired school manager from Brampton, and her partner, Alexandra Whittle, a 25-year-old ORAT employee, gently inquire of their first candidate how he’s doing. An Iraqi Christian, the man says he fled the Islamic State with just the clothes on his back on Sept. 21, 2014. He complains he receives no money from the UNHCR for food, rent or medical care. He sold his wife’s jewelry to pay rent and is flat broke and worried for his two children. “ISIS bombed my house and took my car. I have nothing,” says the 39-year-old veterinarian.
Raffin, 67, gives him an ORAT form to complete. It has 90 questions: why he cannot return home; how much does he spend each month on cellphone and cigarettes, and how he would deal with cold weather. “Do not tell anyone about this interview,” she warns. “If you do, we will never meet again.” He promises to keep their meeting a secret, even from his wife.
Raffin scores him out of nine in three categories: credibility, co-operation and adaptability (the criteria Citizenship and Immigration Canada uses): 9, 8 and 7. There is a good chance he will move to the next stage and be asked to fill out CIC’s application, which includes detailed questions about work history, former addresses, refugee eligibility, family data and photocopies of identity documents.
The next case is a 53-year-old woman with dark circles under her eyes. She sits down dejectedly in a chair: “Will you take us to Canada?” She refuses to be separated from her adult son, and isn’t sure what job she could do in Canada. Her fate hangs in the air, and the small room suddenly feels oppressively silent. Raffin bids the woman goodbye, and gives her a low score for adaptability. She will decide later if the case should move forward. “We want to help everyone, but we are limited because we are human,’ Ildy Sziladi, who works in the ORAT office, reminds her.
Across the hall, Jamie Forget, a 46-year-old teacher with dreadlocks and leather sandals, greets a genial Syrian man. “I want to be honest,” the man says. “I don’t want to go to Canada at all. I want to join my family in Germany. Can you give me money?” Forget explains that this is not the purpose of the interview. “At least he was honest,” says Forget, smiling.
His next client is a 63-year-old Syrian who is blind in one eye. Trembling, the man sits down, and retrieves a crumpled UNHCR refugee card from a plastic grocery bag. Seeping shame and desperation, he begins to weep uncontrollably. Forget allows him to compose himself. “I am Muslim but my community does nothing for me. Only the church is helping me.”
With diabetes and heart disease — as well as an infirm 65-year-old wife — he is not an ideal candidate for private sponsorship. He seems to know it, leaping up and grabbing Forget in a bear hug. Moments like this are draining, but the team must keep a professional distance. “It won’t help refugees if we cry too,” says Forget later, adding that he will refer the case to the UNHCR. Later, he writes a poem about the encounter. “ … more tears leak from his eyes begging … am I offering something I can’t deliver?” it reads.
The truth is resettlement is not every refugee’s “right,” Mark reminds them that evening. There is room in the program for extremely needy people and for the elderly. But most private sponsors, even churches, request families who will integrate, and eventually stand on their own. “Doesn’t it give us a negative image if we are tough, or say no?” asks Donald Igbokwe, a 57-year-old immigration consultant.
“No,” says Mark. “It doesn’t. We cannot say yes to everyone. One man today told me he cannot come back for his second appointment because he has an English class. One man refused to fill out the forms and said he plans to go to Turkey and take a boat to Greece. Are these ideal candidates?”
The next day is a sobering one, filled with interviews with Syrians from Deraa, long a trouble spot in the country’s south. A 27-year-old farmer tells Igbokwe about the torture he suffered in the notorious Al Mazza military prison in Damascus. “They tried to coerce me into confessing I was with the Free Syrian Army,” says Haitham Alsaleh. He was released, only to be injured during a bombing in Deraa. A piece of shrapnel is lodged in his back. “But I am able to work,” says Alsaleh. Igbokwe hands Alsaleh, a father of four, the forms to proceed to the next stage. He breaks into a smile; so does Igbokwe.
Next up: a Syrian woman who sobs throughout their 30-minute conversation, and discloses that she has been raped and has contemplated suicide. Igbokwe turns to team member Pauline Murphy, who has experience in crisis counselling. She gives the woman a long hug. With therapy, Murphy believes she can recover and do well. The case moves forward.
By 7:30 p.m., everyone is back at the hotel, exhausted, but pleased at the steady flood of cases. About half the applicants are not suitable. Some have already applied to Australia or France for resettlement. Others have missing husbands, and ORAT must avoid selecting former combatants. “We don’t have the tools to investigate the role of fighters so we refer those cases to the UN,” Mark says.
Alexandra Whittle reflects on the difficulty of their work. “It’s hard not to feel guilty when you turn down cases. But it’s not actually us who set the selection criteria. Ultimately, it’s up to CIC. But it’s still hard to rationalize.”
In their cramped hotel room, Murphy and Raffin take comfort in silent prayer. Raffin lies on her Styrofoam mattress and pulls up the thin cover. She relives the day, the faces of the refugees flashing before her, one by one. Each story is unique, yet deeply universal. She is haunted by their pain and suffering. The people she has met have all left an indelible mark on her heart — those she can help, and those she cannot.
Choose me: I will make a great refugee
The truth is resettlement is not every refugee’s “right,” Martin Mark tells his team of volunteers at the hotel, during the nightly debrief. There is room in the program for extremely needy people and for the elderly, but most private sponsors, even churches, request families who will integrate, and eventually stand on their own two feet. Refugees, including women, are expected to work as soon as they reasonably can.
« Doesn’t it give us a negative image if we are tough, or say no?” asks Donald Igbokwe, a 57-year-old immigration consultant. “No,” says Mark, who immigrated to Canada from Hungary in 1999. “It doesn’t. We cannot say yes to everyone. One man today told me he cannot come back for his second appointment because he has an English class. One man refused to fill out the forms and said he plans to go to Turkey and take a boat to Greece. Are these ideal candidates?”
Zakaria Mohammed Mokdad, 32; Rezan Albhailki, 24; Aya, 6; and Raed, 3
With a burbling fountain and garden of jasmine trees, Zakaria Mokdad’s restaurant in the ancient Roman city of Busra al-Sham filled his heart with pride. He served minced lamb, kebabs and delectable mezza (tapas). Mokdad befriended his many patrons, including a team of French archeologists. “I even had a tent and a bed for customers,” he said.
But in May 2012, the Syrian Army invaded. Soldiers looted Mokdad’s restaurant of everything of value — chairs, tables, pots, pans, even flatware. The army set up base in the Roman citadel, and began shelling.
Mokdad, his wife and two children fled, to nearby Jeza, and on Sept. 19, 2013, crossed on foot into Jordan. They live in a two-bedroom apartment with extended family, relying on remittances from a brother in Saudi Arabia. Mokdad cannot work and cannot go home. “I will work hard and do anything. We will mix well with all the Canadian people. We need to get a better future so our children can be safe and study.
“Of course, we will also cook for everybody.”