Manitoba

As holidays near, Winnipeg-based Venezuelan family faces deportation in New Year

One of the only things Ana Sofia Rodrigues Suarez, 11, asked Santa for this Christmas was to stay in Winnipeg, but the Venezuelan-born sixth-grader and her parents are facing deportation in the New Year.

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Luiz Bonito, his daughter, Ana Sofia Rodrigues Suarez, and wife, Sandra Suarez de Rodrigues, were facing deportation from Winnipeg in the New Year, but that has changed for the time being. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Ana Sofia Rodrigues Suarez asked Santa for three things this Christmas: clothes, candy and to stay in Winnipeg instead of being deported in the New Year.

"I really want to stay here," said Ana, 11, seated at a table with her colourful drawings and school work in the Westdale duplex the Venezuela-born sixth-grader shares with her parents, aunt and 86-year-old grandmother. 

"I have a lot of friends and they will be very sad if I left them."

Watch Ana list Canadian things she'll miss:

Ana Sofia Rodrigues Suarez, 11, says her friends will be sad if she and her family leave and are unable to come back to Winnipeg. 0:33

After a series of applications to stay in Manitoba were dismissed, Ana's father, Luiz Antonio Rodrigues Bonito, said Canada Border Services Agency notified him this month he needed to buy plane tickets by Friday and be out of the country by Jan. 21.

"I feel sad, desperate, just because my daughter, you know, she is very happy here," said Luiz, 56, who works as a janitor with his wife, Sandra Suarez de Rodrigues, 50, at a local church.

"When I talk to her and say, 'You know, we must leave Canada,' she really, really cry a lot."

Luiz wipes snow off the family van during his first winter here in 2016. (Supplied by Bonito family)

Following a traumatic home invasion and robbery in 2014, the family fled Venezuela for Winnipeg, where Luiz's brother's family has lived since the 1970s.

Luiz's mother, wife, daughter and sister, Cristina Rodrigues Bonito, left amid ongoing economic turmoil that spawned a refugee crisis that has seen over two million Venezuelans flee the South American country in recent years, according to estimates from the United Nations.

Economic turmoil

The family once ran a successful business that sold appliances to hotels and restaurants, but things changed in the mid-2000s, a few years after the late Hugo Chavez took over as president of oil-rich Venezuela. 

For a time, Chavez helped provide better health care and other opportunities for the poor and working classes, but his government also fixed prices for some foods and goods. By 2014, the price of oil had plummeted, and the government was left in serious debt.

Luiz said the Chavez government took over his business and many others. Soon it became a challenge to access basic services or find enough food at grocery stores, he said. Food shortages remain a problem in Venezuela.

Luiz and Sandra participated in an anti-government group and protests in Venezuela and were taken into custody for a day. Luiz said they were made to sign a document stating they would face indefinite jail time if they were arrested for similar protests again.

Two other cousins have been imprisoned in Venezuela in recent years for similar political activity, the family said.

Gun to the head

Then, in 2014, Cristina was approved as a permanent resident in Manitoba through the Provincial Nominee Program. She planned to postpone her move to Winnipeg until Luiz and the rest of the family had their approvals as well, but the home invasion that year changed that.

Cristina, left, planned to leave with her niece Ana, right, despite having herself gained permanent residency in 2014. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"I was shocked. I was sleeping in my own bed and somebody covered my mouth and put a gun at the top of my head," Cristina said with a quivering voice, adding the robbers tied the family up in a room and threatened them.

"What I was most scared about was we were seeing their faces … I said, 'They're going to kill us all,' because that's what happens when you see their faces."

The family dogs died in the days before and tests later showed they were likely poisoned, said Cristina. 

It took a while for Ana to recover.

'I'm crushed'

Luiz came to Winnipeg on a tourist visa in 2015, as did his wife and daughter, after having his application to Canada's skilled labourer program dismissed. While here, he learned his application through the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program was dismissed in 2015.

Sandra, Ana and Luiz celebrate mother's day at Oasis Church, where both adults work as custodians. (Submitted by Bonito family)

In 2017, Luiz and Sandra obtained work permits and their volunteering at Oasis Church turned into paid jobs as custodians.

They've become valued employees and members of the church, said the church's community life pastor Kelly Gray.

He said news of their deportation is devastating.

Watch Gray's goodbye message to the family:

Oasis Church community life pastor Kelly Gray says he was crushed to learn Luiz Bonito and his family are being deported next month. 0:22

"I'm crushed. I I don't think there's ever a good time to get news like that. Christmas doesn't make it any easier," said Gray.

"It's such a friendly family, a loving family, and it's hard to see this cloud hanging over them. I know they're happy here."

Kelly Gray, right, Ana, centre, Sandra and Luiz, left, talk about the holidays at Oasis Church Thursday. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Luiz's application to stay in Manitoba on humanitarian and compassionate grounds was rejected in 2017, so his wife, Sandra, filed for refugee status on behalf of the family that year. The refugee claim was denied and an attempt to appeal at the federal court level was dismissed this fall.

Humanitarian case

They're now waiting for the results of a November humanitarian and compassionate case application they made in the interest of Ana's well-being. The Canadian Human Rights International Organization, which advocates on behalf of thousands of refugees worldwide, is handling that plea and helping to get the Bonitos' story out.

"They believe … they will be targeted upon their re-entry into Venezuela which will put not only their lives in danger, but it will also put their daughter's life in danger," reads a Dec. 12 letter addressed to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. "Ana's safety is their main priority."

Luiz said the past few months have been hard on the family. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Cristina and Luiz were born in Brazil, but also fear for their safety if they were to move there.

Their late father, born in Portugal, arranged for Luiz and Cristina to obtain passports from that country as a contingency in case things in Canada fell through. 

On Thursday night, Luiz bought the family tickets to Madeira, Portugal, for Jan. 21. They don't know anyone there.

Although she can technically stay in Manitoba, Cristina is going to leave with her brother's family and mother.

'Respect our laws'

A Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson refused to comment on the case, but said decisions to remove people from Canada aren't taken lightly.

"Everyone ordered removed from Canada is entitled to due process," the spokesperson wrote in an email. 

"Once due process is complete and individuals have exhausted all legal avenues, they are expected to respect our laws and leave Canada or be removed."

Cristina and Ana pose next to their first Winnipeg snowman in 2016. (Supplied by Bonito family)

For Ana, she loves being close to her uncle's family in Winnipeg. Her three years in the cold Prairie city have been full of firsts. French is one of her favourite subjects, as are the people.

"It's fun. I can have a snowball fight and I can make, what are they called, snowmans," she said.

"People are really nice to me here and I like school a lot and I like everything about it."

As many Manitobans plan to come together for the holidays, one Winnipeg-based Venezuelan family is facing deportation in the New Year. 3:23

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story indicated Luiz and Sandra both filed refugee claims and were denied. In fact, Sandra filed such an application on the family's behalf and it was dismissed. Luiz filed on behalf of the family to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, and that application was rejected in 2017.
    Dec 21, 2018 10:01 AM CT

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, social justice, health and more. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.