Nurse gives orphan refugee a Canadian home

A pediatrician, a lawyer, a friend, a sister, a mother and a Toronto nurse have come together to give an orphan refugee girl a home in Canada.

Young girl and her mother fled danger in Nigeria

Darlene Priestman adopted Nigerian refugee Konnisola and welcomed her into her home. (Courtesy Darlene Priestman)

Sometimes, it really does take a village. A pediatrician, a lawyer, a friend, a sister, a mother and most of all a remarkable Toronto nurse have come together to give an orphan refugee girl a home in Canada.

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In 2011, Abenbola Somoy and her five-year-old daughter Konnisola fled Nigeria. Somoy's husband was dead. 

Somoy was beaten — often — by her brother-in-law. She knew that Konnisola was in danger, too.

With the help of paid smugglers, mother and daughter made it to Toronto's Pearson Airport and applied for refugee status. But three days later, Somoy collapsed. She was rushed to Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga.

It was there, on the oncology floor, that a remarkable story told this weekend on CBC Radio'sThe Sunday Edition began to unfold

"The first time I met Abenbola," recalls nurse practitioner Colleen Johnson, "I heard screaming coming from a patient's room. I went in and someone was trying to put an IV into her. She was being quite mean. I told her stop. Give this woman some room to breathe."

Johnson was immediately drawn to Somoy, a woman with advanced colon cancer alone in a new country who clearly needed a friend. Johnson began having lunch at Somoy's bedside. 

Over a number of weeks, the two developed a powerful connection.

Shuffled between strangers

Johnson discovered that Somoy had a young child, a five-year-old girl Somoy was trying to protect from forced circumcision. 

Most of the time, Konnisola — Konnie for short — was being shuffled between strangers in Toronto's Nigerian community. 

The Priestman family celebrates a birthday. In front from the left are Konnisola, mom Darlene and grandson Kayden, with his mother Sarah standing behind. (Courtesy Darlene Priestman)

She was often left alone in an apartment with instructions not to let anyone in.

A neighbour saw her being shaken and hit in a parking lot. Children's Aid was called.

When Somoy heard about what happened, she left hospital prematurely, rented a room and tried to care for her daughter on her own. But a few weeks later, Somoy landed in emergency again.  

Johnson received a call from the emergency nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital who said: "I have a patient here named Abenbola. Her daughter says you will come and get her."

Johnson made a frantic call to the hospital social worker. Who could take Konnie? She was told there were no beds available in the system.

So Johnson went outside the system and called Darlene Priestman, an oncology nurse, single mother, grandmother and  friend.

'No one to take her'

"You're not going to believe this. They say they have no one to take her. And Darlene says, I'll take her — for a few days."

Konnie arrived on Priestman's doorstep with nothing, no toothbrush, no pyjamas. After a quick shopping trip on that first night, Konnie asked Priestman: "Can I sleep with you?"

But a few days grew into a few weeks, then a few months. Priestman and Konnie visited Somoy in the hospital often.

"They used to say their prayers together, Priestman recalls. "I didn't want her mum to feel like I was taking her away'.

"She grew to love Darlene," recalls Johnson.

Somoy stayed in the hospital and Konnie became a fixture in the Priestman family. She started school and was enrolled in special counselling programs.

Family feast

In October, she spent Thanksgiving weekend with Priestman's extended family at a cottage. 

At Christmas, Priestman's brothers went to the hospital and brought Somoy to the family home for a feast. She returned to the hospital that night. 

Konnisola Priestman shares in Canadians holidays and traditions with her new family. (Courtesy Darlene Priestman)

When Somoy's health took a turn for the worse, she asked that her daughter stay with Priestman, forever if necessary.

Priestman had a big decision to make. Would she — could she — formally adopt Konnie while her mother was still alive?

By that time, she says: "We were as attached to Konnie as she was to us."

Somoy was determined that Konnie stay in Canada.

Chance meeting

The intervention of Dr. Anna Banerjee, a refugee pediatrician, helped secure refugee status for mother and daughter. 

A chance meeting on the oncology ward with a children's lawyer helped pave the way for adoption. Wilson McTavish accompanied Priestman to court. The judge was thrilled to help the adoption go through.

In the days before Abenbola's death in June 2012, Priestman would sit at her beside. They would hold hands. 

"She told me I was her sister," says Priestman. "I was glad she knew that Konnie would be OK."

There are challenges ahead, but a new family has been formed. 

"Sometimes I call my house Darlene's Home for Wayward and Orphan Children. My daughter Sarah went out west and came home pregnant with her son. So she's my wayward child. And Konnie's my orphan child. It's just a crazy household some days. But it works for us."


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