Toronto family risks losing caregiver in immigration battle

The caregiver for an elderly North York woman faces deportation after a long immigration process. The family says due to the woman's unique medical and cultural needs, they can't find anyone else in Canada to care for her.

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Kumundun Beebi Sartharkhan (right) could be deported, leaving Noor Mazhar (left) with no caregiver after her work permit was denied by the Canadian government. (CBC)

For Noor Mazhar, going for a walk involves the help of a cane, and a caregiver she calls Beebi.

Beebi, or Kumundun Beebi Sartharkhan, has been looking after Mazhar for four years.  But now, she may be deported to her native India. 

Her temporary resident status expired in June. Since then, she has gone through an arduous and expensive process to try to stay.

For Mazhar, that means she may be left to fend for herself, with patchwork care from her family.

Noor Mazhar, 80, suffers from right side paralysis, dementia, and speech impairment. She says her caregiver Beebi has become like a member of the family. (CBC)

Mazhar requires full-time care. She suffers from paralysis on the right side of her body, dementia and speech impairment.  

Her ailments are the result of a stroke in 1998, the same year she retired from a long career as a school principal in Pakistan. 

She has a Masters degree in English and Education, but Mazhar has now begun to lose her command of English and mainly communicates in her native Urdu.

She flips between the two languages, without realizing. 

Noor Mazhar, in her younger days as a principal in Karachi, Pakistan, as she received an award for her service. (CBC)
Sartharkhan and Mazhar have been together since 2012, and have shared many special occasions together. (CBC)

'Beebi is my friend'

"Beebi is my friend. Just like my family. She looks after me. Anywhere I go, she goes with me," Mazhar told CBC News.

Mazhar loves to paint, and she wants to paint a picture.

Sartharkhan brings the palette, the brushes, and fits her one useful hand into a white latex glove.

"Four years. Noor mother... family," said Sartharkhan.

She does everything for her, Sartharkhan says, in what little English she has. 

"Come work. Walking. Cycle. Pully. Eat. Medicine. Bathroom. Painting. Full-time help," she lists.

Bilal Naqvi, Mazhar's son, had been searching for a caregiver since 2010. He found Beebi in Dubai four years ago. (CBC)

'She's really her shadow'

Her son, Bilal Naqvi, says Sartharkhan worked with his mom for two-and-a-half years before coming here.

"She adjusted very well and she became like a daughter.  Actually, more than a daughter, because she's really her shadow."

Naqvi says since 2010, he has worked to find an appropriate caregiver here in Canada, to no avail.

"In a very short period of time we had gone through 16 caregivers. It was almost like a revolving door."

Mazhar's son, Bilal Naqvi, shows CBC Toronto reporter Linda Ward the pile of applicants he's gone through during his search for an appropriate caregiver for his mother. (CBC)

"There is no shortage of qualified, educated caregivers in Canada.  The issue is turnover because they run into difficulties of being able to understand what the needs of the specific patients are. They are unique." 

With no options left, he sent his mother to live with his sister in Dubai, where they met Sartharkhan.

She accompanied Mazhar to Canada last year on temporary resident status so that Mazhar could keep her permanent residence status in Canada.  

Sartharkhan and Mazhar have been together since 2012, when Mazhar was sent to Dubai because her family could not find care for her in Canada. (CBC)

Immigration obstacles for foreign caregivers

Service Canada granted the family a positive Labour Market Impact Assessment, accepting that there is a need for Sartharkhan's services in Canada.

But Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says it has not granted Sartharkhan a work permit because the family applied to the Canadian government and not to the embassy in India.

The family has now applied for a Temporary Resident Permit and Sartharkhan's family is applying for her work permit in India.

In the meantime, Sartharkhan is facing deportation.

Sartharkhan helps Mazhar do the exercises she needs for her physiotherapy. (CBC)

Diverse seniors struggle to find care

"This is a much broader social issue," Naqvi said. "The population of South Asians is growing ... in the GTA especially and we will have this problem on our hands."

Seong-gee Um,  a researcher with the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit and non-partisan health research group, has been trying to raise awareness of the unmet needs of the GTA's diverse senior population.

"I hear immigrant families looking for caregivers but within the existing system, it's so hard to find the right person," she said. 

Her research, The Cost of Waiting for Care: Delivering Equitable Long-term Care for Toronto's Diverse Population, found that is having a negative effect on seniors and their families.

"Immigrant seniors and racialized seniors and those whose mother tongue is not English, their unmet needs were much higher than their counterparts," Um said, "and they rely more heavily on their family caregivers."

Um says while the government has made investments in home care, the cultural and linguistic needs of Canadian seniors have not been addressed at a policy level.

She says more than half of the seniors in the GTA are immigrants, many reporting a mother tongue other than English.

Sartharkhan and Mazhar dressed for a special event. The pair say they are "like family." (CBC)

Legal battle could drag on for years

"In my heart I know we will probably get to keep her because it's a genuine need," said Naqvi.

Their lawyer, Pantea Jafari, says the process could take close to two years, but says the minister could grant a temporary resident permit immediately.

"There is an elderly woman with dire need of care, someone living under her roof able to offer that care, with the government having the ability and authority to enable the two to connect."

Mazhar likes to paint in her spare time, and needs Sartharkan's help to do so. (CBC)

"Right now, we are in a very desperate situation", says Naqvi, who says Beebi has no aspirations to stay in Canada permanently.

"We just want some time so that we can enhance the quality of her remaining life," he said.