Saskatoon

Syrian boy in Saskatoon separated from parents for 5 years faces more reunion delays

Nine-year-old Adnan Kharsa arrived in Canada nearly a year ago, but hasn't seen his parents in five years. The Syrian boy wants to be reunited with his parents, but backlogs in Ottawa have delayed an application to privately sponsor the refugee family.

Ottawa says family reunification is a long-standing pillar of immigration system

From his Saskatoon home, nine-year-old Adnan Kharsa speaks to his father in Turkey over video chat. The Syrian refugee hasn't seen his parents in person since 2017. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Nine-year-old Adnan Kharsa loves his new life in Saskatoon, but the Syrian refugee yearns for the day he will be reunited with his parents. He has not seen them in person in five years.

"I would keep hugging them," he said. "I miss them lots."

The Grade 4 student lives with his grandmother and uncle in Canada, while his parents are stuck in Turkey with his three-year-old sister, Sham, who he's only seen on video chat.

The family's separation exemplifies the harsh reality of fleeing a war-torn country and navigating an immigration and refugee system bogged down by a large volume of applications and processing delays.

The federal department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reported a backlog of 1.8 million immigration applications, including 158,778 refugee applications, as of Feb. 1. It hasn't accepted any private sponsorship applications — where Canadian organizations or groups provide support and basic living expenses to resettle refugees — so far this year.

In contrast, Ottawa created an emergency immigration program for Ukrainians affected by war that treats them differently from refugees and allows them to arrive in Canada within a matter of weeks of their application.

Adnan Kharsa treasures this photograph of his parents, Mohammed Kharsa and Yasmine Sheikho, and his little sister, Sham, together in Turkey. He has only met his sister over video chat. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

"We've not even been permitted to put in any [private sponsorship] applications in the first four months of this year," said Mark Bigland-Pritchard, a resettlement co-ordinator with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based agency involved in relief and development efforts.  "It's frustrating."

MCC has an agreement with the Canadian government to privately sponsor about 500 refugees a year. It expects to resume applications next month since the IRCC has said it will allow at least 25 applications per sponsorship agreement holder in early May.

Even then, the average processing time is three years after an application is submitted, Bigland-Pritchard said.

Sound of bombs

Adnan last lived with his parents — Mohammed Manhal Kharsa and Yasmine Sheikho — in the coastal city of Jableh, Syria, in 2017.

He has few memories of that time, although he vaguely remembers his dad chatting with some soldiers and then hoisting him up on a tank.

By the end of 2017, more than 13 million Syrians had been forced to flee or displaced internally by the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, with children among those bearing the brunt of the violence, according to UNICEF. 

The sound of bombing scared then four-year-old Adnan so much that his parents sent him on a trip to Malaysia with his grandmother, who planned to see two of her other children and seek medical treatment, said his aunt, Doha Kharsa, who is spearheading efforts to bring his parents into Canada.

A photo of Adnan as a small child with his parents in Syria, before the family became separated. (Submitted by Doha Kharsa)

A few days after they left on the trip, Adnan's parents fled to Turkey — without passports or much money — to avoid being recruited by the army, said Kharsa. 

They haven't seen their son since.

"It's devastating," said Kharsa. "Every time [Adnan's parents] call him, they would cry. And just patiently waiting to reunite with their son."

Urgent cases

Kharsa, who arrived in Canada as a government-sponsored refugee in 2014, has privately sponsored several of her siblings and their families with money raised by a Saskatoon group called Moms for Refugees.  MCC submits the applications to the government and provides services to refugees on arrival. 

With COVID-19 causing delays, it took Kharsa four years to get Adnan, his grandmother and uncle to Canada from Malaysia, where they had been stuck in limbo. They arrived in May last year.

She then was able to switch her focus to Adnan's parents. The application and $30,000 in funds were ready in December, but MCC hasn't been allowed to submit the paperwork to Ottawa.

The Kharsas are lucky to even be on MCC's approved list. In Saskatchewan alone, MCC has applications to sponsor 900 individuals but historically has only been allotted 65 spots for the year.

"I have to say 'no' to a lot of people and that is deeply, deeply frustrating," said Bigland-Pritchard. "Every case is urgent. We have people who have serious illness, people who've been attacked. We have people who are in danger zones."

Adnan's aunt had hoped that reuniting a minor with his parents could be fast-tracked in some way.

"I was hoping it would be easier, that they would consider a young boy, without his parents — the separation, the humanity," she said. "But no, it's not like that … I was a bit disappointed."

'Mindboggling backlog'

The IRCC did not comment on Adnan's case specifically, but told CBC News: "Family reunification is a long-standing pillar in Canada's immigration system and IRCC is committed to resettling families together, where possible."

Lou Janssen Dangzalan is an immigration lawyer in Toronto who helps clients submit paperwork for private sponsorship. He is not involved in Adnan's case but says it should be expedited so the child is not separated from his parents during his formative years.

Still, Dangzalan said Ottawa is dealing with a "mindboggling backlog" due to a "perfect storm" of global crises and pandemic-related slowdowns.

He said the field office in Ankara, Turkey, is struggling to conduct a huge volume of background checks, interviews, and medical exams for applicants from countries where Canada doesn't have offices, such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria.

"I don't think it's acceptable at this point that there are still these delays," said Dangzalan. "It boils down to political commitment. Are the resources actually being provided to these offices in order to actually process backlogged applications?"

Adnan Kharsa said he's leaving his hair a little long because his father, a barber, has promised to cut it when he arrives in Canada. Adnan doesn't know when that will be, but he wants to be ready for that haircut. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

The speed at which war-affected Ukrainians have made it to Canada under a special set of streamlined rules proves to Omer Khayyam, an immigration lawyer in Saskatoon, that political will and public relations determine which cases are prioritized.

"It is unfair to other refugees, in a sense, because they have to follow [regular] procedures, and they've been patient, and they've been waiting in these refugee camps for a number of years," he said.

Adnan's hope

Khayyam wants the system to be more consistent and more focused on children.

"We don't want children to suffer," he said.

Adnan says he is staying hopeful while he waits. He has let his hair grow longer than usual because his father, a barber, has promised to cut it when he arrives in Canada — and he wants to be ready. 

While chatting with his father via video, Adnan asked his father in Arabic about the first thing he would do if he makes it to Canada.

Then the boy smiled and shared with the CBC News crew his father's response: "He's going to hug me and cry. He's going to be so happy."

WATCH | Adnan Kharsa waits to be reunited with his family:

Syrian boy still waiting to be reunited with family as immigration backlog grows

4 months ago
Duration 2:03
A young Syrian refugee — now living in Saskatchewan — hasn’t seen his parents for almost five years, and it could be much longer before they’re reunited because of a growing backlog of applications in Canada’s immigration and refugee system.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie Allen

Senior reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior news reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. She has covered stories from across Canada and around the world, reporting from various African countries for five years. She holds a master's degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. You can reach her at bonnie.allen@cbc.ca

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