Ottawa

Her work permit expired the day it was issued, leaving this refugee claimant hopeless

Eden Zebene, who escaped physical and sexual abuse in Ethiopia, is exasperated after waiting more than 16 months for her refugee claim to move forward. She finally got her work permit, giving her a glimmer of hope, only to find it expired the same day it was issued: Aug. 6, 2022.

Eden Zebene is pregnant but can't access OHIP, work or study due to IRCC's delay and error

A woman crosses her arms outside a government building.
Eden Zebene fled abuse in Ethiopia in 2021. She stands outside of the building which houses an Ottawa Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada office. She's frequented this building many times in the past 16 months, trying to get her refugee case pushed forward. (Buntola Nou/CBC)

A refugee claimant who fled from civil war in Ethiopia says she's exasperated after Canada's Immigration Department made a silly mistake on her work permit — leaving her still unable to work, study, or get adequate health care as she's waited more than 16 months for her refugee case to move forward.

Eden Zebene has lived in Ottawa since fleeing Ethiopia in February 2021. The 23-year-old is waiting for her case to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada — the final step before becoming a protected person and applying for permanent residency (PR).

"I was very depressed ...  because I don't have anything to do here. I always stay at home. I cannot study or I cannot [work]," she said.

"I want to change myself. My life."

After 16 months of pleading with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to move her case forward over phone, email, in person, and through her lawyer, Zebene had her eligibility interview in late July — a step claimants need to pass in order to get work and study permits.

Though still without a study permit, she finally got her work permit this month, giving her a glimmer of hope — only to find it expired the same day it was issued: Aug. 6, 2022.

"I feel very disappointed. I was very humiliated. I thought that no one cares for me in this country," said Zebene, getting emotional. She described experiencing severe mental health impacts as a result of IRCC's delays and the mistake in her case.

"I cried a lot."

A woman holds up a copy of a Canadian immigration document. The date shows Aug. 6, 2022 for both issue and expiration dates.
This month, Zebene got her work permit. This copy she holds shows it was issued on Aug. 6, 2022, and expires on that same date. (Buntola Nou/CBC)

Zebene said her family was subject to brutal attacks in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, and said her family home and business were burned down. She was detained, beaten, insulted, threatened and sexually assaulted by Ethiopian security forces because of her Amharan ethnicity and her perceived political opinion in the past, her submission to IRCC reads. 

Regions in northern Ethiopia have been embroiled in conflict since the start of a civil war in November 2020 where all sides have been accused of atrocities. While no official government numbers exist, it's estimated that thousands of Amharas have been killed, and millions of people displaced.

"I was scared for my life," said Zebene. "If I return, I will be mistreated, detained, killed, tortured."

A collage of burned down household objects and rooms.
Zebene shared a video of her family's burned down home and business. These are several screenshots from that video. (Submitted by Eden Zebene)

Now safe in Canada, she dreams of studying computer science at an Ottawa university and working part-time, but without valid permits and a social insurance number she's unable to.

She's also pregnant, and had a health scare a few months ago — but was only able to access basic care at a newcomer clinic under her interim federal health coverage, as she waits to be eligible for the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.

Zebene has attempted several times to contact IRCC to fix its recent mistake on her work permit, to no avail.

"I am young, and I believe I can do a lot for this country and also for myself," she said. "Please do something and help me." 

A woman stands in front of the government's immigration office, holding a piece of document.
Zebene says she lived through physical and sexual abuse in Ethiopia. She holds a copy of her work permit in front of an IRCC office in Ottawa. She mailed back the original, in hopes the government fixes its error swiftly so she can work. (Buntola Nou/CBC)

'All her dreams ... fell apart': husband

Tizazu Yamitu said it's been difficult watching his wife struggle.

"It was [a] very traumatic experience," he said. "This bureaucratic process, it had drained her energy and motivation.... All her dreams, you know, like basically just fell apart in front of her eyes."

He questions how such a "trivial mistake" could be made on an important document.

Yamitu, who was also a refugee claimant in 2017, is asking IRCC to properly train its employees, for mistakes to be quickly remedied and for immigration officers to have empathy for applicants.

"They have to think that they're like deciding someone's fate, you know?" he said. "It's totally unimaginable to think that such kind of mistakes would happen."

Not knowing when she'll get a refugee board hearing, Yamitu is asking IRCC to fast track his spousal sponsorship application for Zebene, which they submitted two months ago. This is another path the couple has taken to seek Zebene's permanent residency.

A woman in a red coat poses closely with a man in a blue and white jacket.
Zebene, left, and her husband Tizazu Yamitu. Yamitu was also a refugee claimant in 2017. He says watching his wife wait this long for her case to move forward is agonizing. (Submitted by Eden Zebene)

Longest wait refugee lawyer has seen

Zebene's lawyer Teklemichael Sahlemariam, who practises refugee law, said her 16-month wait for the eligibility interview is the longest he's ever seen among his clients.

"It is not normal," he said.

Sahlemariam said he actually recommends his Ottawa clients to change their address to Toronto if possible, to avoid delays.

"This often happens to my clients in Ottawa, actually," said the Toronto-based lawyer. "It was excessively delayed."

Sahlemariam has also never seen IRCC expire someone's work permit the same day it was issued; but a week before he heard about Zebene's expired permit, he saw an email from another lawyer whose client experienced something similar.

"This kind of technical glitch can happen. I'm not surprised with that," he said, adding that it should be an easy fix for IRCC.

"What bothers me seriously, rather, is the time it took her to get this work permit."

WATCH | Lawyer says he's concerned over client's long wait time: 

Refugee claimant forced to rely on social assistance amid work permit delay, lawyer says

3 months ago
Duration 1:27
Eden Zebene, a refugee claimant from Ethiopia, finally received her work permit after an 18-month delay, only to find it expired on the same day it was issued. Her lawyer, Tecklemichael Sahlemariam, says many of his other clients are seeing delays as well.

Sahlemariam, who's also Ethiopian, said what Zebene experienced in her home country was traumatizing and he is dumbfounded why it took so long for her case to move forward, as there's strong documentation of her persecution in Ethiopia. 

"She wanted to be productive, to pay back to the community, to pay taxes, but she was forced to rely on social assistance and that is because of problems beyond her control," he said.

'Regrettable error,' says IRCC

CBC asked Canada's Immigration Department for comment Tuesday on Zebene's situation. 

In an emailed response Thursday, IRCC said occasionally, human error can happen while processing applications. 

"It was a regrettable error and we apologize for that," wrote a spokesperson. 

The ministry said it has now fixed Zebene's work permit, will print it in two business days and mail it to her. Her study permit is still in the works, it said.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang

    Reporter/Editor

    Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Ottawa. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, and CBC North in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University. Want to contact her? Email priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca

    now