'I'm not abandoning my wife and child': Families fight to stick together in COVID-19 pandemic

A mother stuck in India begs the Canadian government to be reunited with her children in Quebec. An Ontario man refuses to abandon his pregnant wife in Peru. Couples navigate border closures, flight cancellations and immigration delays in their bid to stay together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal government has repatriated more than 12,000 Canadians, but some families remain stranded or separated

Robert and Angelica Turner got married in Peru in February 2018. Robert wants his pregnant wife to be with him in Canada during the pandemic, but she's prohibited from entering the country until her permanent resident application is processed. (Submitted by Robert Turner)

For Robert Turner, it wasn't much of a choice.

The Ontario man had the option of flying home last week on a government-organized flight out of Lima, Peru, or stay behind with his pregnant wife, who didn't qualify for a seat on a repatriation flight.

"I'm not abandoning my wife and child," Turner, 55, said.

His wife of two years, Angelica Turner, 40, a Peruvian citizen, can't travel to Canada because her application for permanent resident status in this country, submitted 15 months ago, hasn't been processed yet, said Turner. He said he's unwilling to leave her behind alone, but also "terrified" of staying in Peru with an expired visitor visa during a nationwide lockdown enforced by the military.

The prospect of being separated by travel restrictions is nerve-racking and heartbreaking for some couples and families amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It's compounded, at times, by confusion and frustration over the criteria to board a repatriation flight back to Canada.

More than 12,000 Canadians who were trapped in foreign countries by COVID-19 border restrictions and flight cancellations have managed to get back on home soil due to the repatriation efforts of the Canadian government, according to Global Affairs Canada.

The government has worked with airlines and foreign governments to arrange dozens of flights from 40 countries, including Peru, India, Nigeria, Ukraine and Cuba.

Stuck in India, Harminder Sandhu says her four-year-old daughter in Canada cries for her and asks, 'Mommy, when would you come back?' (Submitted by Harminder Sandhu)

A statement from the Prime Minister's Office on March 21 said flights would "prioritize stranded travellers who are Canadian citizens, Canadian permanent residents, or immediate family members of Canadian citizens ... holding a valid travel document." It also says foreign nationals who are working, studying or "making Canada their home" would also be permitted to board a repatriation flight with valid travel documentation.

Angelica doesn't have a visitor visa for Canada or a permanent resident card, so she doesn't fit the criteria to board a rescue flight.

Mother begs to be reunited with her children

For Harminder Sandhu, 37, a licensed practical nurse, her permanent resident status wasn't enough to get a ticket home.

She is stuck in India and separated from her three kids and husband back in Saint-Hubert, Que. She's been told she can't get on a repatriation flight back to Canada because she's a permanent resident who is not travelling with a Canadian citizen. 

Sandhu made an emergency trip to India on March 8, with plans to return two weeks later. But India closed its airspace to all commercial flights on March 22.

"My father-in-law had a heart attack and I came here just to attend his surgery and clear medical bills," Sandhu said in an email to Canada's emergency response centre. "My youngest daughter is only four years old. I am not able to control my tears when I see her crying on a video call and asking every day, 'Mommy, when would you come back?'"

She contacted Canadian consular staff in India and Ottawa last week to plead for permission to book a ticket on one of the government-organized flights out of Delhi. She explained that her husband and kids need her in Canada.

She received a rejection email that said for a permanent resident to be granted a seat, they would have to be travelling with an immediate family member who is a Canadian citizen.

Sandhu has been separated from her daughters, Japji, 4, and Iknoor, 11, after taking an emergency trip to India to help her father-in-law after he had a heart attack. (Submitted by Harminder Sandhu)

So, Sandhu remains stuck, desperately missing her family. 

"I am a nurse and Canada needs nurses during this hard time," she said.

Digging up old leases

Toronto resident Taryn McKay, 34, counts herself lucky.

She and her boyfriend of two years, a Brazilian citizen who holds a work visa in Canada, were travelling in Peru when the country enforced a nationwide lockdown to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. The couple, facing potential border restrictions in both Canada and Brazil, wasn't willing to separate. They prepared to ride out the pandemic at a hotel in Peru.

McKay later discovered that her boyfriend, a professional photographer, would be allowed on a repatriation flight to Canada with her if she could prove their common-law status. She quickly contacted their former landlords to get copies of old leases, which had both their names.

"In the end, we showed two old leases and one future lease, because we had rented a place in Toronto for May," McKay said. "That seemed to do the trick."

The couple is back in Toronto in isolation after arriving last week on a flight organized by the government. 

"I'm super relieved we could come back together. ...The uncertainty of not knowing where we would go, or when we would be able to see each other again if we separated, was the worst part," McKay said.

'It simply feels hopeless'

Robert Turner was already impatient with Canada's immigration system, which he calls "an apathetic, bureaucratic mess," but now says he's beyond frustrated that delays have put his family in a precarious legal limbo in the middle of a global health crisis.

Turner, a former machinist whose hands were crushed in a workplace accident, says he's been travelling to Peru for the past eight winters to escape the cold.

In February 2016, he took a morning walk in Lima to find a coffee and noticed Angelica, a chef, opening the doors to a cafe.

"Her smile captured my heart immediately," Turner said.

The couple was married two years later. Turner splits his time between Chatham-Kent, Ont., where he owns a house, and Peru, where he stays with Angelica in their apartment in Lima.

He tried to get Angelica a visitor visa to Canada after they were married, but she was denied.

Angelica Turner, 40, is in her second trimester. Robert is worried she won't get proper prenatal care during the lockdown in Peru. (Submitted by Robert Turner)

Turner said he's spent $7,000 on immigration consultant fees to help with his wife's permanent resident application. They submitted the paperwork 15 months ago, in January 2019, and soon after he was approved to become her sponsor.

So, when Turner arrived in Peru four months ago, he was confident, he said, that his wife would be granted permanent residency in Canada before March 2020. That's when he expected the two of them would fly to Canada together.

"The immigration consultant guaranteed us this process wouldn't take any longer than 12 months," Turner said.

Turner received an email from his member of Parliament's office two weeks ago, which he provided to CBC News, that advised him that Canada's immigration department only expedites applications in extreme circumstances.

"I need to stay together with my husband," Angelica said. "I need the visa application and the embassy is very late for this, and I don't know when they answer."

Turner and his wife are staying inside their apartment, abiding by a nationwide curfew, and following rules that prevent non-essential movements and only allow women and men to go out in public on different days. 

He's worried about how long the pandemic will last, where his baby will be born, and whether his family will run out of food and money. They're already rationing rice and beans.

"The banking systems are closed here. You are lucky if you can find an ATM with any money," Turner said. "It is going to become, very soon, dangerous to walk down the streets with groceries. People have no money. They cannot access money.

"I would like our child to be born in Canada. It simply feels hopeless having any faith."


Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master's in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC

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