On October 19, 2014, Fathi Ismail, 16, approached the squat grey building surrounded by windswept prairie where the Interstate 29 from Grand Forks, N.D., turns into the Lord Selkirk Highway to Winnipeg.
Ismail was cold and frightened, but full of hope as he entered the Canadian Border Station at Emerson, Man. He had been told that in Canada he had a chance-a slim chance, but a chance, nonetheless-of rescuing his 12 younger siblings and his infant niece. It was the only one he had left.
Three weeks before, Ismail had flown into Los Angeles from Jeddah on a student visa arranged for him by a relative. But while on the flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, where he was supposed to begin his studies, he met a fellow Somali who told him that there was a large Somali community in Minneapolis that might be able to help him. After landing in Seattle, he decided to take an eastbound train to Minnesota. He stayed in a mosque for three days and was advised that he might have better luck in Canada. For $500, a white man he met at the Minneapolis train station agreed to drive him the 500 km to Grand Forks, where he walked into a Somali restaurant and asked how he could get to Canada. Three young Somali men offered to give him a lift to the border.
Ismail showed his visa to the border guards, and they waved him through. It was 6 p.m., and this was as far as his companions could take him, so he turned north and began the 110-kilometer walk to his new home, a journey that Google Maps says takes about 22 hours. He arrived the next day, having spent an anxious night on the open highway. It was the last leg of his physical journey, and the first in a longer legal one.
A year and three months later, Ismail recounted his story over the phone from Hospitality House, his new home in Winnipeg, only weeks after having welcomed his siblings to Canada after a dramatic and extraordinarily challenging case of refugee sponsorship.
It began in Saudi Arabia, where Ismail was born to Somali parents in 1998. His father worked in the Somali consulate in Jeddah, the cosmopolitan Red Sea gateway for pilgrims en route to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and this was where Ismail and his younger brothers and sisters spent their entire lives until tragedy struck twice in 2009 and 2010, when first their mother and then their father fell ill and died.
Ismail, then 12, and his older brother Fathi suddenly became heads of the family. Saudi Arabia does not grant citizenship to foreigners born on its soil-and has highly exclusive immigration and refugee laws- and Ismail, Fathi, their siblings, and a cousin (whom their parents had adopted), became fugitives overnight.
They couldn’t venture out to the mosque or even to the market to buy food because they were “scared of the police,” he said. They stayed in their parents’ house, mostly, and when the police came looking for them they hid in the house of a Somali woman who had been a friend of their mother. Ismail knew he had to find some way of bringing his family to safety, and when he got a visa to study in the United States, he thought it would be his ticket.
“I wanted to stay in the United States,” he recalled, but the Somalis he met told him to be prepared for a long wait. “I told them, ‘I can’t stay here for 10 years to bring my siblings, because they are at risk right now,’ ” said Ismail, who spoke in measured, thoughtful tones.
“As long as their father was alive, they were legally there [Saudi Arabia] because he was an employee of the Somali consulate,” said Tom Denton, the executive director of Hospitality House, a non-profit refugee ministry that has been working with Ismail to resettle his siblings in Canada. “As soon as he died, they lost their status…the authorities swept into where they were living and took everything-all their identity documents.” Since they were declared illegal, they were at risk of being deported back to Somalia, “where they had no previous experience of ever living, had no family, and couldn’t even speak the language,” said Denton.
Denton met Ismail in April 2015, a few months after he had arrived and claimed refugee status in Winnipeg. Because he was a minor, Ismail was taken in by Manitoba’s Child and Family Services (CFS) and put into school. But the constant anxiety and lingering guilt about the well-being of his brothers and sisters weighed heavily on him, and eventually he explained the situation to his social worker, who promptly put him in touch with Denton.
“I thought, ‘This is impossible-how do you do this? How do you rescue 12 children out of an environment like that?'” said Denton, who has a background in law. “I mean, I could see all the problems…However, I thought, ‘This may be impossible, but I have to do it. These children are so vulnerable-if they are deported to Somalia, they’re dead.’ ”
Denton got to work, and through the Anglican diocese of Rupert’s Land, the sponsorship agreement holder through which Hospitality House works, he was able to secure enough spaces for them within a matter of months-a fairly remarkable achievement, given that refugees brought in through family sponsorship can take years to process.
Gail Schnabl, the diocesan refugee co-ordinator and a Hospitality House board member, recalled that the challenge was not so much getting them refugee status as getting them out of Saudi Arabia.
“They needed to be brought out to a safe place so they would not be deported back to Somalia,” she said. “That was a feat, really, because the government of Canada does not, generally speaking, bring unaccompanied minors [into the country].”
Fortunately, Denton noted, there was a lot of support for the case within the Canadian bureaucracy.
“All the way along the system, the people were understanding and buying into this need to rescue these children and get them out of there quickly,” he said. “This was such a compelling story emotionally that we began to get allies in the right places.”
That did not mean there weren’t obstacles. There were the logistical problems of getting health checks and travel documents for the Ismail children. It meant sneaking them into the Somali consulate to file paperwork and have their photographs taken, and co-ordinating efforts with the Canadian consulate in Abu Dhabi, which handles refugee cases in the Arabian peninsula, and doctors in London, England, who sign off on the medical check-ups. The age of the children also raised other challenges. While a typical private refugee sponsorship is a yearlong commitment, the 13 Ismail children were going to need a long-term guardian, given that the youngest is only eight.
“This is into the future-these are underage people,” Schabl explained. “We needed to know that there were some people in the community who would be able to be involved with them on a longer-term basis, who were willing to do this.”
While Winnipeg’s Somali community quickly rallied around the Ismail children, this is where the case hit an additional snag -because they were raised in Saudi Arabia, none of the children speak Somali, and few of the Somalis in Winnipeg speak Arabic.
Fortunately, Hospitality House agreed to take the children until more permanent housing could be found, and the only remaining problem was how to get the children out of Saudi Arabia.
“Since [the Ismail children] were illegal in the eyes of the Saudi government…the process of getting an exit visa…[involved] getting a pardon first,” Denton explained. “It’s a bureaucracy…things didn’t move as fast as we hoped they would.”
While he had hoped the children could be brought in by mid-December, delays with the exit visas pushed this date to January. And even though the paperwork was in process, the Ismail children still were not safe-Ismail said that just days before boarding the plane to Winnipeg, two of his sisters were caught and, because of their lack of legal status in the country, imprisoned. It was only after the Somali community in Jeddah intervened that they were released.
‘A great triumph’
But on January 14, the children finally arrived at James Armstrong Richardson International Airport in Winnipeg.
“It was the best day [of] my life,” Ismail said. “I thought I would never see them at least for a couple years, but everything went so fast. It was a great triumph.”
As they descended the escalator, Ismail embraced the first one to step off, his 15-year-old sister Nasiimo, and then Muna (16), her infant daughter Kinda, Ayan (16), Huda (14), Ismail Mohammed (13), Amal (12), Mustafa (10), Fahmi (10), Yassin (9) Nima (8) and Fathi. Also on hand to meet them were volunteers from Hospitality House, the diocese of Rupert’s Land and a large group of reporters.
Their cousin Nema (16) is still in the process of getting an exit visa due to her not legally being a sibling of the Ismail children, but Denton said she would likely be arriving in the near future.
The children are currently living in a Hospitality House property in Winnipeg’s North End, but Schnabl said she is hoping they will be given space in a new government housing project that is being planned.
“The application for that is in the works, and [the housing] organization has agreed that they will get priority in this place, so they don’t have to go on a waiting list…but in the interval, they will stay in Hospitality House.”
Meanwhile, the children are in school, and Ismail is making his own plans for the future.
“I am applying to continue my education, and I am looking to study chemical engineering,” he said. “Canada is a very peaceful place, and the people here are very friendly and welcoming. I think this is the best place for the future.”