Roma Pusuma family living in Toronto sanctuary caught in legal bind

A Roma family that’s been living in a Toronto church is seeking special permission to stay in Canada in order to testify at a legal hearing related to their former attorney, and so that their six-year-old daughter can attend kindergarten without fear of deportation.

Human rights advocates appeal to minister to stay in Canada while their case is heard

Jozsef Pusuma and Timea Daroczi, who have been living in a Toronto church with their six-year-old daughter for 32 months, have been subpoenaed to testify at the trial of their former lawyer but say they are afraid they will be deported if they attend. (CBC)

A Roma family that’s been living in a Toronto church is seeking special permission to stay in Canada in order to testify at a legal hearing related to their former attorney, and so that their six-year-old daughter can attend kindergarten without fear of deportation.

Jozsef Pusuma and his wife Timea Darozci said they came to Canada five years ago after they were attacked for their work as human rights advocates in Hungary. They have sought sanctuary in a Toronto church for the past 32 months after they were ordered deported following a failed bid for refugee status.

The couple’s daughter Viktoria, who goes by Lulu, has lived inside the church for more than one-third of her life.

The family is at the heart of a Law Society of Upper Canada disciplinary hearing for their former lawyer, Viktor Hohots, who stands accused of professional misconduct after seventeen Roma families, including Pusuma and Darozci, filed official complaints against the lawyer with the regulatory body. 

Former lawyer under investigation

It is alleged that Hohots offered legal representation to assist Roma families through the Canadian refugee process, but then filed inaccurate and incomplete work.

In the case of Pusuma and Darozci, Hohots failed to translate and file crucial documents with the Immigration and Refugee Board before the couple's refugee status hearing. 

The couple claimed Hohots omitted a statement from Pusuma's former boss, Viktoria Mohacsi, a member of the European Parliament. Pusuma worked for Mohasci researching human rights abuses against Roma in Hungary.

Hohots also failed to show up on the day of their hearing.

The disciplinary proceedings — set to begin next month — come after a two-year investigation into Hohots by the LSUC. Many of the refugee claimants who filed complaints have since been deported. 

'Their evidence is absolutely critical'

Pusuma and Darozci have been subpoenaed to testify at the hearing, but they say they’re afraid that if they leave the church they’ll be detained by Canada Border Services Agency and deported.

"They’ve been summoned so officially they are legally required to attend at the hearing. But if they step out of the church they face immediate arrest and deportation," said the family's current lawyer, Andrew Brouwer​.

"Their evidence is absolutely critical because most of the other complainants against their previous lawyer have already been deported from Canada."

Andrew Brouwer, the Pusuma family's lawyer, has filed an application with the federal government asking for a special permit so the family of three can remain in Canada. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

Brouwer filed an application Thursday with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander asking him to grant the couple and their daughter a special permit to remain in the country.

"We’re asking the minister to step in and grant a Temporary Residency Permit to Jozsef, Timea and Lulu so they can stay in Canada with legal status while they attend the hearing before the Law Society," Brouwer told CBC News.

Brouwer said he has asked Alexander for a two-year permit. 

"He doesn’t have to give them permanent status at this point," he said. "All we’re asking for is a temporary permit to let them stay here while they pursue the Law Society case."

Brouwer said such permits are commonly issued by the minister or his officials in cases where there are complex and extenuating circumstances.

Couple wants 'a safe life' for daughter

Lulu, Brouwer said, is facing a similar bind. At six-years-old, she's legally required to attend kindergarten starting next month. But leaving the church to walk to school together is a risk for the family. 

Brouwer said the child’s best interests must also be considered in this case. "If they walk her to school, they face arrest for that as well, and deportation."

Meanwhile, the Pusumas say they are exhausted by the long battle. Their daughter can’t understand why she’s not able to go outside and play with other children.

"My daughter is very smart but this is no life for a child," Darozci told CBC News in an interview. 

"I don’t want too much. I just want freedom and for my daughter a safe life."

Petition of support signed by 43,000

The couple's case has drawn widespread support from across Canada. A petition supporting the family has been signed by more than 43,000 people along with a children’s letter-writing campaign entitled Free Lulu.

The government has also received letters of support from prominent church and community leaders across Canada.

Both Pusuma and Darozci have full-time job offers and sponsors have already pledged to support them financially while they await the outcome of their case.

Brouwer said if the Law Society upholds the complaints filed by them and others, it will be grounds to reopen their refugee application and have it re-evaluated by a new board.