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Mom and daughters reunited in Edmonton after 15 years apart

When Mely Fernandez left her two young daughters in the Philippines to come to Canada for work, she expected the girls would soon be allowed to follow.

'We are so happy because finally we are with our mama'

When Mely Fernandez moved to Canada from the Philippines in 2002, she expected her two young daughters would soon be able to join her. Fifteen years later, she was reunited with them in Edmonton. 2:01

When Mely Fernandez left her two young daughters in the Philippines to come to Canada for work, she expected the girls would soon be allowed to follow.

Instead, she waited 15 years for her family to be reunited.

Fernandez moved to Edmonton in 2002 to work as a live-in caregiver. She sent most of her earnings home to support her daughters, Mia Denise and Zeina, who were six and nine at the time.

"It was very hard," Fernandez said. "The worry is always there. Every night, every day, you're thinking, 'How are they doing? Are they safe?' "

Mely Fernandez (right) spent more than a decade "going through the needle holes" to reunite her family in Edmonton. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Three years after she arrived in Canada, Fernandez applied for permanent residency.

In 2007, she learned from a government letter that her daughter, Mia Denise, had been barred from becoming a permanent resident because she is mentally disabled.

"I have a special daughter," Fernandez said. "She was inadmissible here in Canada because of her situation."

Applicants can be refused on health grounds if a medical condition "might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services," according to Canada's federal immigration website.

Fernandez's application for permanent residency was rejected.

"I was crying. I established myself here already and they're sending me home — it was devastating."

Edmonton-based Shirish Chotalia has worked as an immigration lawyer for three decades. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Through friends in a similar situation, Fernandez found immigration lawyer Shirish Chotalia, who helped her apply for a temporary residency permit, so she could continue to work in Canada. 

In 2013, Fernandez again tried for permanent residency. Canada Immigration called to say she could only apply for herself but not her daughters.

The girls had become too old to be considered dependants.

"I could not control my tears," Fernandez said. "I fight for this for how many years? I was losing hope already and I said, 'If I have to give up, I will get old like this without my kids with me.' So I keep going, and I keep going."

Again, Fernandez turned to Chotalia and together they appealed the decision in federal court.

They won in 2016.

'Finally we are with our Mama'

Last Wednesday, nearly 15 years after Fernandez first left her daughters behind, she welcomed them to her home in Edmonton.

Her oldest daughter, Zeina, can now pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. The 23-year-old said she would not have been able to attend nursing school in the Philippines. 

"We are so happy, because finally we are with our mama," Zeina said. "After our long battle, finally we won. We're very thankful for her never giving up on us."

For Mia Denise, 21, Edmonton's weather was a marvel; it's the first time she has seen snow.

"I'm happy here in Canada," she said. "I love Canada. My mom is happy here."

'Just don't give up'

Chotalia, an immigration lawyer for three decades, said she hopes the case helps other immigrants. She works with a dozen clients every year, filing up to 20 appeals. But for every case she accepts, she said there's another she has to turn down.

Shirish Chotalia (left) says that, in her 30-year career as a lawyer, Mia Denise Fernandez (right) stands out as one of her favourite clients. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

"This is one of my favourite clients, right here, because she's so sweet," she said, leaning over to hug Mia Denise. "I'm just so delighted that we were successful."

Beside them, Fernandez beamed.

"Whoever will encounter this, just don't give up," she said. "I'm so proud because we did not give up."

"Just think of the future of my kids. They are your inspiration — as a mother, you work for your family, for your girls."

"I'm so proud because we made it." 

@ZoeHTodd