Orphaned African children stuck in immigration limbo for 2 years, says Calgary aunt

A Calgary woman is begging immigration officials to hurry up and approve her application to bring her niece and nephew, whom she adopted when her sister died in 2014, from central Africa to Canada.

Caroline Ijang trying to bring niece and nephew to Canada from Cameroon since parents died

'Losing both parents is hard enough,' said Caroline Ijang about her adopted niece and nephew, who have been waiting more than two years for their paperwork to be approved by Immigration Canada. (Falice Chin/CBC)

A Calgary woman is begging immigration officials to hurry up and approve her application to bring her niece and nephew, whom she adopted when her sister died in 2014, from central Africa to Canada.

It's been two years since Caroline Ijang adopted the orphans from Cameroon, but she still has no idea where the case stands.

"I know in the immigration office they have a tough job," Ijang said.

"I know there are millions of people, they apply from all over the world. I am not saying it is easy. But these are kids that are helpless. If this was your own child, what would you do? They've already been through a lot."

The two adopted children, Will-Norman and Faith, were 10 and eight respectively, when they lost both parents. Their father died in a car accident and shortly after their mother — Ijang's sister — died in hospital from health complications.

Ijang recalled the difficult conversation she had with her sister in her final days.

"She said, 'You know I am struggling and if anything were to happen to me please take care of my kids.'"

Following her sister's death, Ijang flew to Cameroon for the funeral. While there, she legally adopted her nephew and niece.

Due to visa restrictions, Ijang could not return with the kids. Instead, she had to come back to Canada alone, then start the immigration process.

She left her adopted children with another relative in Cameroon, with the mutual understanding that their living arrangement would be temporary. Ijang said that family already has three children of their own and are now overwhelmed by the additional responsibilities.

Caroline Ijang with her adopted niece after her parents died in Cameroon. It's unclear when she and her older brother will reunite with Ijang in Canada. (Submitted)

Application promised to be 'fast-tracked' 

Once back in Calgary, Ijang filed her sponsorship application immediately. She said she was told by an immigration officer the case would be expedited due to the urgent circumstances.

"They told me to write the words 'orphaned relative' on the envelope and the case would the fast-tracked," said Ijang.

Within a week, Ijang was approved as a sponsor. The immigration application was then forwarded to the Canadian embassy responsible for Cameroon which happens to be located in Senegal, a country more than 3,000 kilometres away in west Africa.

The office was quick to ask for additional documents at first but, Ijang said, all of a sudden communication stopped.

Ijang hasn't heard from the office since the summer of 2015 — a difficult fact to explain to her two adopted children.  

"To have my nephew telling me, 'Oh, this is how daddy left the house, saying he was coming back and never came back. This is how mommy went to the hospital saying she was coming back and never came back. You've been telling us you're going to come get us soon — it's been two years, when is soon going to be?'"

Case no longer 'urgent' 

Despite Ijang's numerous attempts to contact the visa office abroad, Will-Norman and Faith's immigration application is no longer considered urgent.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the average processing time for applications from Cameroon is three years.

"We understand that applicants are anxious for the process to be completed as soon as possible. But IRCC must take the time needed to ensure applicants meet all of the requirements for permanent residence," the department wrote in an email to the CBC.

When pressed further about whether three years is acceptable for cases involving orphaned children, IRCC responded with the following statement:

"In some cases, applicants can request that their application be expedited because of urgent circumstances. There is no indication in our records that Ms. Ijang has requested urgent processing."

However, email records indicate otherwise.

Since August, Ijang has contacted several officials, including the office of Tom Kmiec, the MP for Calgary-Shepard, pleading for help.

Kmiec's staff said his office contacted IRCC twice on Ijang's behalf, and on both occasions were only able to obtain application status updates which state the case is still under review.

Will-Norman, 12, with his aunt Caroline Ijang, who lives in Calgary and adopted him and his little sister after their parents died in Cameroon. Ijang has been trying for two years to bring her nephew and niece to Canada. (Submitted)

In desperation, Ijang contacted the Prime Minister's Office, and was told Justin Trudeau couldn't intervene.

"While the Prime Minister understands the circumstances that caused you to write," a letter from the PMO stated.  "There are certain restrictions on the involvement of cabinet members, including the Prime Minister in cases like the one you have described.

"These limitations exist to assure all applicants that the immigration and refugee determination process is independent and free of political interference."

The CBC has made calls to both the Senegal visa office and the PMO. Neither have responded at the time of publication.

The office of Calgary's only Liberal MP and cabinet minister Kent Hehr declined to comment, citing privacy concerns. That's despite being shown, twice, copies of Ijang's official privacy waiver with the government.

Immigration lawyer Kevin Zemp, who's also a former senior Canadian immigration officer, said while most consulates would prioritise cases involving orphaned children, sometimes their decisions are inexplicable.

"There is nothing as aggravating as bureaucracy and it can absolutely drive you around the bend," said Zemp.

"You know I discovered something early in my career that has kept me sane. and that is don't expect common sense. Because if you expect common sense you are going to be incredibly frustrated."

Another immigration lawyer, Peter Wong, said he wouldn't be surprised to see more roadblocks ahead.

"There are many competing interests when it comes to children," Wong said. "No one wants to make a mistake. Governments are very concerned about child trafficking and child protection."

He said the barriers are meant to act as safeguards, but they often end up bogging down legitimate cases.

"There is no doubt in my mind that when you have a bureaucracy that is protecting the interests of the children — they often stand in the way of individual cases and make processing much longer," said Wong.

Wong said he's seen cases where the applicant's children are past the age of 18 by the time they're approved to come to Canada.

Running out of options

For Ijang in Calgary, her only option now is to wait.

At 41, Ijang said she never planned to be a mother. But when a family tragedy forced to her to step up, she did so to the best of her ability.

"I made changes in my life to because I was single and didn't need a big place to live," she said. "Because of their trauma I need to make the kids as comfortable as possible."

Since 2014, Ijang has bought a new home deep in southeast Calgary and has switched job positions to better accommodate the future needs of Will-Norman and Faith.

Ijang is also sending money every month to Cameroon.

"It's not like I'm complaining. It is my responsibility but I feel like I'm running two homes," said Ijang.

"Because I am taking care of my home here and I have to take care of the home in Cameroon... I'm responsible for their feeding, I pay like school fees, medical bills like everything I take care of that. so I'm running two homes."

Ijang said she's worried time is running out. She said her children are starting to fall behind in school.

"Children need stability in order to thrive," said Ijang. "Losing both parents is hard enough. They need to settle down and start a new life."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

About the Author

Falice Chin

CBC Edmonton

Falice is an award-winning producer who's been working for CBC since 2006, including with the Calgary Eyeopener and now as senior producer of Edmonton AM. Her career has taken her across Canada and the Middle East. Falice grew up in China and has lived in 10 cities around the world. You can reach her at: falice.chin@cbc.ca