‘I have to hold on and be strong:’ Refugee mom and son separated from family after fleeing Gaza

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Amal Battrawi and her five-year-old son Sameer sought refuge in Canada two years ago, but Battrawi’s husband and two daughters are still trying to reunite with them.

Amal Battrawi and her five-year-old son Sameer have been separated from the rest of their family since mid-2019 after fleeing Gaza. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Amal Battrawi said she dreams of a day when her children won’t be afraid to play outside. But for the past two years, she’s been having recurring nightmares.

“I just keep thinking and [I] worry about my daughters,” said the Palestinian refugee.

Her daughters, Sama, 11, and Sireen, 13, have been trying to leave Gaza for Hamilton with their father Sherif.

They’ve been separated from Battrawi and the family’s youngest child, five-year-old Sameer, since March 2019.

Battrawi said her family was in danger in Gaza and the police weren’t helping, leading the family to make the decision to leave.

She and Sameer were able to get travel visas to Canada. She’s thankful they made it. But the rest of the family was forced to stay behind.

Her husband and daughters have been surviving by shuffling from home to home on a weekly basis, sometimes separated, trying to evade the constant threat of violence and from air raids. In May, an 11-day war with Israel wreaked havoc in the region, causing widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip. 

Without electricity or internet in Gaza, Battrawi said she has gone weeks without knowing if they’re OK.

“My heart breaks,” she said.

Lack of residency permit is ‘cruelty,’ advocate says

This case isn’t an isolated incident, according to Matthew Behrens, co-ordinator of the Rural Refugee Rights Network.

He said he’s worked with a dozen families from Gaza who are separated and pleading with the federal government to save their loved ones from danger. Four of those 12 families have been reunited.

Behrens also said thousands of others are separated from their families, waiting to get their permanent residency applications processed. He said the average application processing time is 39 months.

In Battrawi’s case, her husband and daughters applied for an emergency temporary permit to enter Canada immediately due to the imminent danger they face.

It’s been nearly 50 days since they applied, but they say they haven’t heard back.

Until recently, Battrawi’s husband and two daughters were stuck in Gaza. (Submitted by Amal Battrawi)

“The fact that Amal has not seen her kids and her husband in 29 months … that’s just plain cruelty to a family. And you add on top of that the constant fear of being picked up by the state authorities or killed in an air raid,” Behrens said.

“What the Canadian government seems to be saying to refugees and immigrants is ‘You’re welcome to come here, but we’re going to throw all kinds of barriers in your way and once you are here, we’re not going to be a in a great hurry to reunite your families.'”

Battrawi said she contacted Matthew Green, NDP MP for Hamilton Centre, for help. She said he did his best, but she is still playing the painful waiting game.

Green said reuniting families is a cornerstone of Canada’s cultural identity, but the delays send the opposite message.

He and Behrens pointed out MP Jenny Kwan, the NDP critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), is calling for a six-month limit on permanent residency applications involving children.

Green said the long line of people seeking refuge to Canada is a sign the country needs to improve its foreign policy to better support the de-escalation of war and violence abroad.

WATCH | Refugees desperate for emergency permits to bring families from war-ravaged Gaza. 

Refugees desperate for emergency permits to bring families from war-ravaged Gaza

More than a dozen Palestinian refugees living in Ontario have been separated from their loved ones in war-ravaged Gaza for more than two years, desperate for the federal government to help their families escape the threat of violence back home. Dale Manucdoc has more. 2:40

IRCC did not respond to a request for comment before the time of publication, but previously told CBC it cannot comment on individual cases.

“We are aware of the situation faced by the dependants of resettled refugees who might remain in Gaza, and we continue to closely monitor the situation,” spokesperson Peter Liang said in an earlier statement.

The department also could not provide an approximate wait time on the processing of applications, citing the “many different variables involved.”

Family expecting answer in coming weeks

Battrawi said the past two years have been tough, but things may be looking up.

Her daughters and husband are now in Egypt, which means they can communicate regularly.

Sherif is also setting up an appointment with the Canadian Embassy about his applications.

Battrawi and Sameer hold hands outside their home in Hamilton. Battrawi hasn’t held her daughters or husband since 2019, when she and her son fled Gaza. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Battrawi hopes after that, she’ll receive a response in a few weeks time.

What she doesn’t know is if that will lead to a long-awaited reunion or more waiting.

“Sometimes I feel guilty and depressed about what I should do,” she said.

“I have to hold on and be strong and continue because I promised my daughters, ‘I will bring you here and you will be safe here.'”

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