A Hamilton community leader is at a crossroads, forced to choose, he says, between a future in his adoptive hometown and being reunited with his mother. 

Arriving in Canada in 2006 as a government-sponsored refugee, Leo Johnson has studied at McMaster, started a charity linking newcomers with longtime local residents, and has enlisted Hamiltonians in an effort to build a groundbreaking library and learning centre in his native Liberia.

And though his commitment to Hamilton is strong — he said he’s turned down lucrative job opportunities in Toronto and in the U.S. to live here — Johnson is mulling, reluctantly, abandoning the city he's worked so hard to improve. 

Furious that the federal government has denied his mother’s application to come to Canada for a two-month stay, Johnson, 30, said he’s forced to consider returning to Liberia to be reunited with her.

“It’s either that or abandoning my family,” said Johnson, stressing he hasn’t made up his mind on the matter.

His desperation to see the situation resolved stems from the fact he’s only seen his mother in the flesh once since he fled war-torn Liberia in 1998.

'I tell people I’m normal, but this situation keeps me abnormal. It makes me unstable.' - Leo Johnson

For eight years, he lived in refugee camps in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, while his mother, Viola Lavelah, remained in Liberia to treat the sick and wounded in that country’s Second Civil War. For that entire period, Johnson was left to wonder what became of his mother.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2007, the year after Johnson settled in Hamilton, that he and his mother learned the other was alive.

“We’ve been separated since I was 16 and I have lost too many years already,” he said. “I tell people I’m normal, but this situation keeps me abnormal. It makes me unstable. This will just send me down the wrong track in terms of stability. It’s taking its toll already.”

Three years of planning

The effort to arrange Lavelah’s would-be trip to Canada began three year’s ago, Johnson said, after they were reunited in Liberia in 2010.

Now a Canadian citizen, Johnson said he’s spent $5,000 of his own money to arrange the trip. Sending a form to West Africa and back cost him $120 a pop and he spent hundreds of dollars to reserve a plane ticket for a flight his mother would never take.

“We were pretty confident that we did everything we needed to,” said Johnson.  

Viola Lavelah

Viola Lavelah, Johnson's mother, is a nurse who runs a health clinic on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. (Facebook)

But in July, Johnson received the Canadian government’s response, which refused Lavelah entry into the country. He said he’s confused by the reasons Citizenship and Immigration Canada gave for declining the visa application.

The government, he said, cited his mother’s “travel history” — which Johnson interpreted to mean her lack of previous international travel — as well as her finances in its decision.

“They weren’t convinced that she was returning after her visit because she’s never travelled before,” he said.

As for her ability to support herself while in Canada, Johnson said his mother, a nurse who owns a medical clinic, provided the government documents about her business, which employs six people. 

Johnson also slammed the application process because, he said, it has no meaningful appeals process.

“They make it clear that the case is pretty much closed,” he said. “You have to reapply. And to get different answer, they say the situation has to have changed significantly.”

Citing privacy laws, Citizenship and Immigration Canada said it would not speak on the details of Lavelah’s case.

However, in a written statement, the agency defended its application process.

“Decisions are made by highly trained visa officers in accordance with Canadian immigration law,” wrote spokesperson Sonia Lesage. “When a visa officer refuses an application, it is because the applicant does not meet the requirements set out in Canada’s immigration law.”

She said the onus is on applicants to demonstrate to the CIC that they have enough money to support themselves during their time here and that they “will leave Canada voluntarily at the end of their authorized stay.”

Johnson said he’s offended at what he believes to be the implicit message of the government’s decision: that his mother would use the visit as a means to get a foothold in Canada.

“She doesn’t want to live here,” he said. “She’s served her community all her life and during the war, and she won’t be taken away from it.”

No timeline for decision

Johnson said he hasn’t set a timeline for making his "extremely difficult" decision. He’s contacted MP David Christopherson’s office to see if the NDP representative could somehow intervene in the case.

Regardless of the outcome, the prospect of having to leave Hamilton weighs heavily upon Johnson’s thinking.

Lemuel, Johnson’s five-year-old son, has lived his entire life here. Johnson said he and Lemuel’s mother would have to decide whether the child would remain in Hamilton or join his father in Liberia.

And then there’s his work. In 2007, Johnson founded CURE Canada (now known as Empowerment Squared), an organization that, among other things, raises funds for development projects in Liberia, helps newcomers adapt to life in Hamilton and mentors children from low-income families.

(He said he’s in the process of transitioning from his job in McMaster University’s office of university advancement to working with Empowerment Squared full-time.)

Matthew Green, an Empowerment Squared board member, said Johnson’s departure would be a big loss for Hamilton.

“I call his story quintessential Canadiana — this refugee who comes here and hits the ground running, automatically contributing the kind of things that would take some people decades to accomplish.”

“I always have the attitude that, wherever I go, I make it home,” Johnson said of his involvement in Hamilton. “I want to be able to see this place as comfortable for me if this is where I'm going to live."

His commitment to the community is one of the reasons he’s so upset about the government’s decision.

“It’s just devastating to see this kind of treatment for people who make sacrifices to help make the system work,” he said. “You feel really taken advantage of.”