On Wednesday, I went to Las Posadas, a Latin American celebration (traditionally over nine nights) that re-enacts the search for lodgings by Mary and Joseph. A procession goes from house to house, singing a traditional song asking for shelter. The family inside refuses, until finally they let everyone in.

Visiting family for me means going to a lot of church, and at Christmas, the services are filled with lessons about the wonder of the baby, and the holiness of motherhood. Sermons are preached about how Mary and Joseph were poor and had nowhere to go.

In Winnipeg, where I am right now, I listened to a story this morning on the radio about a family of refugees who lost all their fingers from frostbite crossing the border. It’s jarring to sit in church and celebrate the holy family, while outside the church doors, in Canada, families are being broken up and refugees are detained and deported back to countries where they could be killed. On Wednesday night, we mimicked being refused shelter, but this is of course the reality for refugees.

Abdoul Abdi fled with his aunt and sister to Canada at age six. In Canada, he was taken into permanent care by the state. He was bounced from home to home. His longest stay was three years, in an abusive home. By the time he was a teenager he was homeless and living on the streets, a victim of trauma after trauma, much of it inflicted on him in Canada.

Abdoul Abdi as a child. Image from thestar.com

Canada was responsible for Abdoul, but the people in change of protecting him did not get him the citizenship that would have protected him from the worst danger. It is well-documented that children in the foster care system are at a high risk for future criminalization. As a Black child, Abdoul’s risk of incarceration was even higher. What he needed protection from the most was the state.

Working on cases like Abdoul’s reminds me of the privilege of growing up in a well-resourced, loving family. This privilege gave me resilience and opportunities that have shaped my life.

Abdoul, by contrast, was apprehended by children’s services at age 8 and then warehoused in 31 different placements by the time he was 19. This experience in “care” shaped his life, not always in positive ways. Because he was a child in care, Abdoul was denied citizenship—he was denied the right to have rights.

Abdoul’s case also shows the troubling disregard that government officials have for the humanity of long-term permanent residents who came to Canada as young children and for various reasons did not become Canadian citizens. It highlights the discord between our often trumpeted “Canadian values” and our actual respect for international human rights obligations.
— Benjamin Perryman, Abdoul Abdi’s lawyer.

Nobody is defending or minimizing Abdoul’s violent crime, but because the people who were supposed to be caring for him did not seek the citizenship he is eligible for, he is now being punished twice. Unlike other Canadians, after Abdoul serves his prison sentence, he will be punished again – taken into detention after his time expires, and deported to Somalia. He has a young daughter. If he is deported, she will grow up without a father.

We’re not supposed to deport to Somalia because of the danger. Our own Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, was himself an asylum seeker from Somalia. It’s too dangerous for him to be sent there, but we can send Abdoul.

YouTube video

Abdoul finishes his sentence in early January. Canadian Border Services wants to strip his permanent residency and detain him.

Even worse, Abdoul Abdi’s case is not unique.

Fliss Cramman also came to Canada as a child, was sexually abused in her family, and then abused again repeatedly in care. Like Abdoul, the Department of Community Services did not seek Fliss’ citizenship. And like Abdoul, she was incarcerated and then detained for deportation. Critically ill, she was shackled to her bed in the Dartmouth General Hospital. It was only after protests and widespread outrage that Fliss’ shackles were removed — and in her case she was fortunate that her deportation order was eventually stayed.

Fliss Cramman with her daughter. Image from cbc.ca

In October, I met Fliss when I was performing where she now lives. I had helped organize the protests about her shackling. She is still struggling without her residency, without which she can’t work or access so many of the services she needs. When she came to see me, she brought me a card and some presents. In the card she wrote that I saved her life. She said that people looked at her and saw an addict and a criminal. She never expected a complete stranger to fight for her.

I’m not telling that story to praise myself. It maybe took 10 hours of my life to protest what was happening to her. I’m telling the story so people can see her kindness, her generosity, her thankfulness. This was a woman we were told was a threat to Canada. She messaged me again before Christmas, and thanked me again. She kept saying, I owe you my life. She told me her children were so grateful to me, so relieved she was still in Canada. This is the woman, once an abused child, who was almost thrown away by this country.

Debra Spencer is another woman who experienced childhood trauma that left her with severe mental health struggles. And again, even though she was eligible for citizenship, it was never sought on her behalf. Like Fliss, she is the mother of young children. Debra is still under deportation order. This is a systemic problem for non-citizen children in care, something that should not be left up to individual workers or adoptive families to handle or not.

Debra Spencer at 16. Image from cbc.ca

I learned about Abdoul’s case from a young man doing time with him. Despite his own problems, he was moved by Abdoul’s distress, and by what he saw as an injustice. He asked me if I could help Abdoul, if there was anything anyone could do to stop him from being deported. When I spoke with Abdoul, I said, I can’t promise anything, all I can do is try for you. I was going to a conference where the Minister of Immigration was speaking: I promised to bring his case to his attention, to try to advocate.

We only spoke briefly. Abdoul asked me, “why do you help people? What do you get out of it?” And I said something about how when something isn’t right, you have to do your best to change that. And he asked me if it ever works, if you ever win. I told him that sometimes there are small victories. And he comforted me, told me to be positive, to believe in myself. He is facing deportation, maybe death, certainly exile from everything and everyone he knows and he took the time to lift me up. He spoke about wanting to be a father to his child, and about how terrified he is about being sent to Somalia.

There is an easy solution. Canada could grant citizenship to children in the care of the state. This is in accordance with our international human rights obligation to provide “special protection” for non-citizen children in care. When the state assumes responsibility for a child, it also has a duty to keep that child safe. Through the inaction of children’s services and Canada, these children have been denied the most fundamental right. The state is not held responsible for this neglect. It is the abused children who pay once they become adults experiencing the foster care to prison pipeline.

For everyone who says that people simply shouldn’t commit crimes if they don’t want to be deported, and who says it’s their own fault, where is that accountability when it comes to holding Canada responsible for failing children in care?

And now Abdoul’s child will spend the holiday season not knowing if she will ever see her father again. For him, the holidays mean waiting in prison to see if he will be detained indefinitely after his sentence until he is removed.

There should be room in Canada for Debra, and Fliss, and Abdoul, and for all the children who were harmed in Canada, not protected in Canada, and now being pushed out of Canada because we don’t want to take responsibility for them. There’s empathy for abused children, until those children grow up, and then we call them criminals and threats and send them off to die in countries they know nothing about. We feel sad for children without presents, or families, or celebrations, but when that abandonment and trauma affects those children as adults, we’re all too ready to throw them away.

On the radio, they talked to the man who lost his fingers to frostbite wading across the border in chest-deep snow, something that wouldn’t happen if Canada would end the safe third country agreement with the United States. They asked him if he had anything to say. He wished the listeners a Merry Christmas, and said he was grateful to be here in Canada, here where the people are good and generous and kind and you can be free.

Image from The Canadian Press.

I asked Julie Chamagne from the Halifax Refugee Clinic for a quote about immigration detention. What she sent back was a personal reflection on working with people who are detained. I couldn’t possibly cut out anything she wrote.

Something that always really strikes me is how stressed out and physically and mentally afflicted people are when they are detained. I will see a person regularly who is distressed, tense, face buried in his hands, upset and that is my experience of them. And then that same person, a few days or hours (or even minutes!) after they are released will be so happy and serene.

When a person enters Canada and makes a refugee claim, the procedure doesn’t stop just because they are detained. This means that a person needs to tell me their story of persecution, of trauma, of war, of rape, of torture, in a program room, in short sessions, without an interpreter (or maybe one by telephone, if we can get someone) and remember and recall all the details of their life while dealing with the huge trauma of being detained (which in so many cases triggers memories of past detentions, tortures, experiences with repressive and violent authority figures.)

It puts them at a huge disadvantage in that they will be presenting this story at their hearing and there may be huge gaps or omissions or inconsistencies or issues with chronology and that affects their chances of getting refugee status and staying permanently in Canada.

We’ve had people detained who are separated from their families, after having come here through dangerous and inhumane means (like hiding in a container ship) who miss their families but who do not want to contact them as they are too ashamed or worried to tell their families that they are in jail in Canada.

Recently a man refused to contact his family because he would rather spend more time in detention than subject his family to the knowledge that he was in a prison. His own father journeyed from Pakistan to Australia (like so many Afghanis) and they never heard from him again. So many desperate bodies in the sea.

In so many cases, people have dreamed about Canada for years and been told such wonderful things about Canada and they are so profoundly astounded at how they are treated when they enter seeking safety.

Recently we had a young man from Afghanistan look at me with wide eyes and say in all sincerity, “we have never seen this before” and that’s from someone who had to deal with the Taliban.

The look on people’s faces as they hang on every word of the faceless voice from Montreal (the Immigration Refugee Board is in Montreal and conducts detention review hearings by telephone) and then when the voice says that detention is maintained, the sheer disappointment and despair in their face and body. Another 30 days. At least.

I can see how profoundly humiliated and wounded people are to be welcomed to Canada by being thrown in jail.

We’ve had clients beaten up in detention for praying or for requesting different food or not being able to speak English or looking different.

People who are fleeing terrorists are treated like terrorists by the government agencies and called terrorists by the other inmates.

Habtom’s experience with detention

We had a client from Eritrea who had waited for years and years to be in a position where he could desert the army. He was stationed on the Eritrean Sudanese border and he fled. He crossed into Sudan and made his way to Libya, but he was sent back to Sudan by the Libyan authorities when he was caught there. He made his way back to Libya again and this time managed to get into a boat that would carry him across the Mediterranean. He survived the crossing like so many do not. He stayed in Italy for a bit and prepared the rest of his journey. To Canada, the land of human rights and diversity and tolerance and peace…

He traveled to Germany and took a direct flight to Halifax from Frankfurt. Although he had ID, he was detained for 3 weeks or so while it was being “authenticated”. A few years after his release, once he had been through the procedure that ultimately precluded him from being able to access refugee protection because of his past in the army (where he had tried unsuccessfully to leave several times and been sent to a camp to be “ reconditioned”) the day before he was to meet with Border Services to enforce the decision and start taking steps to remove him from Canada, I met with him.

He was scared at the possibility of going back to his country where he would be tortured and possibly killed but he was incredibly scared and agitated at the thought that there was a chance that he could be detained in Burnside again, after having had such a terrible experience years earlier.

The next day he didn’t come to his appointment and eventually that day he was found in a tree in the woods by an elementary school, having hanged himself with a power cord he took from his room.

So many strong emotions and so much pain in the cold fluorescent sparseness of contact program room 4.

I asked one of our clients, a young man from Afghanistan who was detained in Burnside in the fall (actually the same one I mentioned above), to share a few words about his experience and this is what he texted to me today:

When I come in Canada at first I am go hospital and after they put me in the jail and my healt is not good and jail for 2 month it’s like 2 years and every time I am not sleeping good because I scare it’s jail and I am refuse its for me hard my mind my face and my healt day by day it’s gone bad and the first time I see like that place in my life.

We are coming in Canada to save our life we need happy life like you people we need help from you people and love.
— Ali Reza Mohammed

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. It is absolutely absurd that we allow birth tourism by wealthy foreigners but deny citizenship to some of the most unfortunate.

    It is not a secret that I am not a fan of Canadian immigration policy, but I am generally in favor of humanitarian refugee programs.

    Merry Christmas to all, and think about those who are less fortunate than you.

  2. The list of names suffering from injustice is long, their stories are heartbreaking and the acceptable solution lies within the ability of those in power to enact. The likelihood of such a solution being enacted is probably not great, which is unfortunate.

    Mahatma Ghandi: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

    Nelson Mandela: “A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones”

    Samuel Johnson, Boswell: “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”

    The quote has been reworded many times by many sources, speaks of one concept that appears to be ignored by most ruling parties throughout the world today and in the past. Which nation will be the first to embrace the concept of actually providing for the poor and solutions whenever injustice is recognized?

    Merry Christmas