'Hooked to an artificial respirator, Khaldoun Senjab has been identified by the United Nations as a Syrian refugee for priority resettlement.
A Canadian official who interviewed the computer systems programmer in Lebanon last year noted on the refugee sponsorship application for Senjab, his wife and two children: “Beautiful family that will settle well.”
That’s why the family was shocked to receive a rejection letter from the Canadian visa post in Beirut in April, saying Senjab was inadmissible because of his work with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, an opposition umbrella group recognized by the United States, as well as countries in the Middle East and Europe, as Syria’s legitimate representative.
“We escaped death and war in Syria to face a very difficult situation in Lebanon. Just imagine the situation for a woman with her ventilator-dependent quadriplegic husband,” said a frustrated Senjab, who is restricted to lying in bed after a serious diving accident in 1994.
“The decision of the Canadian visa officer was absolutely unfair. They treated me like a criminal. I did nothing wrong. They didn’t only break my heart but they broke the heart of my tiny little family.”
According to the Immigration Department, visa officials have rejected 381 cases, or 3 per cent, of the 11,333 Syrian private sponsorship applications received between Nov. 4, 2015, and July 20 this year. Of those, nine cases were refused due to the applicants’ alleged association with a group “engaged in or instigating the subversion” of a government.
The Syrian opposition coalition was launched in 2012 with the goal of “overthrowing” the regime of Bashar Assad and building a democratic, pluralistic Syria. It works with the Free Syrian Army — made up of defected Syrian Armed Forces and supported by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — to protect civilians. Canada has not recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the country’s legitimate representative.
“Although we cannot comment on a case, we can say that applications are considered on a case-by-case basis on the specific facts presented by the applicant,” said Immigration Department spokesperson Nancy Caron.
“Admissibility decisions are made by trained officers in accordance with the criteria set out in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.”
Since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, five million Syrians have fled the country, with another 6.2 million internally displaced, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The death toll is estimated at over 400,000.
The Assad regime has been condemned by the international community for its brutal attacks on its own people and use of chemical weapons.
Critics said supporters of the Syrian opposition are particularly at risk of torture and persecution if returned to the country from temporary shelter abroad.
“It is preposterous that the Canadian government is refusing urgent refugee cases like Senjab’s, for any kind of remote connection to the Syrian opposition,” said Toronto lawyer Tim Wichert, who represents the family in asking the Federal Court of Canada to review the government decision.
In his client’s case, Senjab said he worked as a freelancer through a friend on the web server for the website of the coalition, providing defence against web security attacks. He said neither was he a member of the group nor did he endorse any violent activities with or against the Assad regime.
As of the end of March, almost 46,000 Syrian refugees had settled in Canada, including 23,975 sponsored by Canadian government, 17,705 by private faith and community groups and some 4,210 in the mixed stream.
However, there are still 14,972 Syrians in 5,652 private sponsorship applications in process. Wichert fears immigration officials are trying to “find a simple solution to clear their caseloads” by using the inadmissibility on security grounds to refuse applications.
“Immigration’s position seems to be that anyone who worked or volunteered with the coalition is inadmissible to Canada on security grounds for engaging in the subversion of a government by force or being a member of an organization that has engaged in the subversion,” said lawyer Pierre-Andre Theriault, who is aware of at least three such cases in recent months.
“Over 80 countries around the world, including the European Union and the United States, recognize the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The discretionary, and discriminatory, application of inadmissibility provisions seems problematic to me.”
Theriault’s client, Mohammad Waleed Taleb, received a “fairness letter” in June from the Canadian visa post in Turkey raising concerns that the Syrian refugee could be inadmissible “due to your past activities and past employment” with the coalition.
Taleb, 32, said he volunteered to help with creating the media office for the opposition in October 2011, advocating for human rights and democracy for a new Syria.
“I created the websites, social media, branding and e-marketing channels. I felt it was important to be involved in the movement for democracy in Syria because of the ongoing violence in Syria being committed by the al-Assad regime against civilians,” said Taleb, who is in exile in Turkey with his wife, Duaa Khiti, and children, Khaled, 7, and Lana, 4.
“My role was very specific within the media office and I was not directly or indirectly involved in the promotion or implementation of any violence or war crimes.”
Taleb said life has been tough for his family as they only have temporary residence status in Turkey and he fears for their lives there because he is known to members of Daesh, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in the country and has received threats.
“Duaa and I are terrified to return to Syria. We know that the situation in Syria has deteriorated significantly and we believe that our lives would be at risk,” said Taleb. “There is no place in Syria that my family and I can be safe.”
Jennifer Raine, of the People of the East End Refugee Support Group that is sponsoring Taleb and his family, said she understands the needs to properly screen newcomers for security threats but Ottawa’s broad stroke against anyone associated with the Syrian opposition does not make sense.
“It’s not that hard to tell the difference between those who work behind the desk promoting democracy and those who have weapons in their hands,” said Raine, whose group was matched with the family in December 2015.
“These guys can’t go back to Syria. Their status in Turkey is tenuous. What are they supposed to do?” '