It took more than five years and a federal court decision but Adel Benhmuda and his family are back in Canada.
Benhmuda, 46, his wife Aisha and their sons, Mohammed, 18, Moawiya, 17, Omar,13, and Adam, 11, arrived late last night from Malta, where they had been living as refugees.
They were greeted by their lawyer, Andrew Brouwer, and several supporters who had banded behind them for years.
“It's 13 years of hassle, finally thank god, we are here,” said Benhmuda. “I just want to forget everything. I don’t want to blame anyone. Keep it happy. It’s no time to blame anyone now. Thank god we are here.”
The family fled Libya in 2000 and settled in Mississaugua. Benhmuda said the family faced persecution because his brother was linked to a group opposed to the regime of then dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Their two youngest children, Adam and Omar, were born here. But when the family’s refugee claim was finally heard, it was turned down. They family was deported back to Libya in 2008.
Upon return to Libya, Benhmuda was immediately imprisoned and tortured by Gadhafi’s officials. He was later released and the family fled to a refugee camp in Malta where the United Nations High Commission for Refugees declared the family to be legitimate refugees. It asked Canada to take them back.
But a visa officer at the Canadian Embassy in Rome rejected the request, alleging erroneously that the family had been a welfare drain after arriving in Canada.
In a scathing ruling a year ago, a federal judge ruled the visa officer was biased and had placed erroneous information on their file. She ordered the case be sent to another visa post.
Canadian officials in Paris accepted the family’s application earlier this year. But it has taken time for the family to wade through the federal bureaucracy and have their visas granted.
Even then, there was a last-minute glitch when the government demanded the family pay $6,800 – the cost of deporting them to Libya in 2008. But the demand prompted thousands of Canadians to write the government and last month the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, waived the fees.
“It’s been rough for the family,” said Brouwer. “I have found myself in the difficult position of having to continually encourage them to trust that the Canadian system will ultimately vindicate them.”
But Benhmuda said he never lost faith. “Hope was always there for me, and my wife and my family,” he said.
After arriving at the airport, the family was taken to their old neighbourhood in Mississauga, where supporters and volunteers had banded together to provide them with a fully furnished townhouse. “We were just so happy they were coming home,” said Elinor Mitchell, one of the volunteers.
Teacher led homecoming campaign
It was Ingrid Kerrigan, the youngest boys’ kindergarten teacher, who led the campaign to bring the family home. Last year she spearheaded a petition that garnered more than 15,000 signatures demanding the government allow them to return.
“I’m drunk with happiness,” she said recently on learning of their impending return.
'Canada doesn’t track what happens to people who are deported ... The Canadian government puts people on planes and then washes their hands.' - Andrew Brouwer, Benhmuda family lawyer
The oldest boy, Mohammed, 18, wants to continue his studies in chemistry and biology. His brother Moawiya, 17, will return to high school.
The two youngest boys, Omar and Adam, said they’re anxious to return to the school they left and see the teacher who fought so hard on their behalf.
Benhmuda also has his old job waiting for him as an optician’s assistant; his boss had kept the position open for his return.
“Adel was committed to come back to Canada, especially for his sons,” Brouwer said. And while this story has a happy ending, Brouwer says that’s not the case with others who are deported back to countries that imprison and torture people.
“Canada doesn’t track what happens to people who are deported,” he said. “At the end of the day we don’t know what happens. The Canadian government puts people on planes and then washes their hands.”