Winnipeg church becomes sanctuary for family facing deportation

The steps of the Crestview Fellowship Church in St. James is as far as the Kargbo family can go while they face a lengthy legal process to stay in Canada and avoid deportation.

The Kargbo family is fearful of being killed if forced to return to Sierra Leone

Fatmata Kargbo is getting legal help to try to lift a deportation order to leave the country. She fears what may happen to her family if they are sent back to Sierra Leone. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The steps of the Crestview Fellowship Church in St. James is as far as the Kargbo family can go while they face a lengthy legal process to stay in Canada and avoid deportation.

"It's tough for me to just live, not going outside, not walking, especially my kids," said Fatmata Kargbo, who is seeking sanctuary in Winnipeg church. "You wake up in the morning, you see the kids around you and not going into school and they will just keep asking me 'Mom, when are we going back outside?'"

Kargbo and her two boys, Thaduba, 12, and Mathebeh, 6, have been staring at the same walls of the church for nearly two months as they fear deportation back to Sierra Leone.

Kargbo and her family, including her now ex-husband, came to Canada in June 2016 to attend the wedding of a family friend. Following the wedding, her husband went back home, but Kargbo stayed out of fear for her children's safety.

Kargbo is grateful for the church for opening their doors and supporting her family, as they try to reverse a deportation order to leave Canada. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

Kargbo claims her ex-husband has lineage and strong ties to a men's fraternal group called the Poro Society, which has initiation rituals that can be deadly.

"Most times if they take those kids in those witchcraft society, they lose their lives, some of them lose their lives. I don't want that to happen to my kids," she said.

According to Kargbo, since returning to Sierra Leone her ex-husband has remarried and sold all her possessions, leaving her with nothing to raise her children with if she returned. 

Kargbo believes the fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family spell imminent danger to them if they return home, but Immigration Canada didn't see it that way, she says.

Application denied

The Kargbos' original refugee claim was denied in December of 2016, when the Immigration and Refugee Board deemed they didn't need protection and were not "convention refugee."

A convention refugee is defined by the United Nations as someone who would be facing persecution if returned to their country of origin.

Then in February 2018, an application for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds was shot down.

Then in January, the Kargbos received their final rejection letter on their pre-removal risk assessment when the officer reviewing the case didn't feel they would face persecution if they returned to Sierra Leone.

"It's all so frustrating for me and stressful, I don't even want to think about that very day," said Kargbo, as she tried to recall her emotions from that day.

Just as all hope of a chance to stay in Canada seemed to be slipping away, her church stepped in.

Pastor Darrel Guenther sought the help of Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson and Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen to find a solution.

"At the last minute, 11th hour [we realized] that that wouldn't be happening and the decision was no, so that triggered discussions here about accepting her and her plea for sanctuary," he said.

Pastor Darrel Guenther of Crestview Fellowship Church plans to stick with the Kargbo family until the legal process is completed. (Ahmar Khan/CBC News)

The family had been coming to the church regularly for the past three years, and had become well known.

The church members came to the conclusion that the Kargbos' plea to stay in Canada was legitimate especially seeing the life they had cultivated through hard work.

"She's amazing, she's willing to get out there … she got herself employed she got her children into school and and she was trying to make a good life for them here in Canada and was doing quite well,"  Guenther said.

'We recognize there's a process'

Despite how well liked the Kargbos were, the church avoided stepping in earlier out of respect for the decision made by immigration officials.

"We recognize there's a process to enter our country," Guenther said.

Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale can order a stay of deportation, but only to give the immigration minister more time to make a decision about whether to give someone status in Canada.

Mathebeh Kargbo, 6, and Thaduba Kargbo, 12, play a game of basketball in the church gymnasium. The family can't leave without running the risk they'll be deported. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Canada Immigration and the Canadian Border Services Agency can't comment on specific cases, but say officers won't enter a religious sanctuary to enforce a removal.

As of June 6, the Kargbos are the only people seeking sanctuary in a church or other religious institution across the country, according to the agency.

CBC News has reached out to Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada for specifics about the deportation and handling of the Kargbos' case, but have yet to hear back.

Hoping kids can go to school

In working with the family's legal team, which the church is paying for, Guenther is hoping the Manitoba government can help the family by allowing the kids to return to school.

"Education … in the school system is also important, so [it would] be great for that to happen," he said.

For the time being, the church congregation of 60 people is providing food and clothing, and helping to educate the kids. 

The help and support, both financially and emotionally, has not been lost on Kargbo.

"They bring their own supper to eat with me...I feel loved and like I'm with family," she said.

For Guenther, to see his congregation rally around one of their own has been reaffirming.

"The mandate of the church is to care for people, and you know, to take care of widows and orphans. That's definitely the case here and we want to be a church that does that," said Guenther.

The caring won't stop for a while, as the Kargbos' legal aid expects the case to be reviewed and a decision to be made within eight to 12 months. 

The steps of the Crestview Fellowship Church in St. James is as far as the Kargbo family can go while they face a lengthy legal process to stay in Canada and avoid deportation. 2:40

With files from Aidan Geary and Karen Pauls