Family gains residency after 5 years

A family that lived in fear of deportation for five years, seeking sanctuary in a Winnipeg church basement part of that time, has finally gained residency status.

Lived in sanctuary in church basement for 18 months

Rubab Hassan is hoping to apply for full citizenship in about three years. (CBC)

A family that lived in fear of deportation for five years, seeking sanctuary in a Winnipeg church basement part of that time, has finally gained residency status.

"I honour and I respect Canada more than anything. I've been here so long, I think the people matter the most and I've met so many people in Canada that they're like family," Rubab Hassan, the 17-year-old daughter of Raza Hassan and Sarfraz Kausar, told CBC News on Wednesday.

"It's a relief to be able to stay."

Raza Hassan and his wife, along with their six children, had lived in the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church from August 2006 to February 2008 to avoid deportation to Pakistan.

Raza Hassan and his family inside the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church in 2007. (CBC)

They claimed they would face religious persecution in the predominantly Sunni Muslim country.

Hassan is a Shia Muslim while Kausar is Sunni. The two major denominations of Islam have been in heated conflict for years and Hassan was beaten while in detention before the family fled in 1998.

They lived in the United States before moving to Canada in 2003, where two of the couple's children were born.

The family sought refuge in the church after a federal court initially rejected their refugee claim based of religious persecution.

They then applied to stay in Canada on compassionate and humanitarian grounds, with the church lobbying the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration for landed immigrant status.

While the application on compassionate and humanitarian grounds was under review in November 2006, the family had asked the government for freedom to leave the church sanctuary and live in Winnipeg.

That was turned down.

While living inside the church, the children were home-schooled by volunteers who also looked after the family as a whole.

In 2007, the school-aged children started attending classes at a regular school after the family was given assurances by government officials that doing so would not open them up to detention by immigration authorities.

Those excursions to and from school were the only times the children were allowed outside of the church. However, the boundaries of that freedom were widened in February 2008, when the government allowed the family to leave the sanctuary and rent a home.

Their case remained under review until a few days ago, when they were given permanent residency status.

"It's been exciting [to have the freedom]. It's like, when we entered the church, we were pretty much locked in," Rubab Hassan said.

Rubab Hassan and her brother Mohsin show off their home, a meeting room in the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, in August 2006. (CBC)

She compared the imposed sanctuary of a room in the church to being like living in a bird cage. The freedom to rent a house was like moving from the cage but being on a dog leash, she said.

"We were free but we weren't really free," she said. "Now we're off that leash and we finally feel like we can take in that fresh air."

Hassan said there are times from the church room that she doesn't want to remember because there was stress, a lack of personal space, and some fighting among the family members.

But overall, the time allowed everyone to bond and get to know each other better, she said. And it was remarkable to see the lengths other people in the community went to, to support the family.

"It is extremely touching to have so many people who are not related do so much for us. We're never going to forget anyone who gave us so much support," she said.

Hassan is hoping to apply for full citizenship in about three years.