As It Happens

'It is heartbreaking': Syrian refugee dies while waiting to come to Canada

A gay Syrian refugee waiting for approval to enter Canada died suddenly over the weekend, and now a friend and fellow refugee is wondering why the government didn't push to bring him here sooner.
Well-wishers gather in the hope of greeting Syrian refugees arriving on the first government arranged flight at Toronto's Pearson Airport, on Dec. 10, 2015. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

After nearly two years of paperwork, correspondence, anxiety and cautious optimism, a gay Syrian refugee finally got his application approved by the Canadian government in August.

The only thing left to do was wait for the government to arrange and confirm his flight.

But Ahmad, who also had a heart condition, died suddenly on Sunday. And now his friends are wondering why the government didn't push to bring him here sooner.

"It's disheartening to think he was so close to coming here, yet so far," said Danny Ramadan, a gay Syrian refugee now living in Vancouver who helped connect Ahmad to Canadian refugee sponsors.

The group of sponsors who were trying to bring Ahmad to Canada. (Rainbow Refugee)

"I'm just heartbroken. It's hard to see that someone so close, and someone who could have been among us right now, is not with us any more," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Ramadan says he and the people sponsoring Ahmad (whose last name is being protected by his sponsors) had been trying to expedite his refugee application over the past year and a half. He was most recently residing in Beirut.

Ahmad suffered a serious bout of coughing and hallucinations, and was vomiting blood over the weekend. His friend tried to take him to a hospital, but they were turned away because hospitals in Lebanon don't admit refugees, who don't have medical insurance.

They eventually found a hospital that did admit him, but he died soon after on Sunday night.

In his Facebook post, Ramadan says Ahmad's friend told him, "at least he passed away dreaming of coming to Canada."

Expected to arrive by November

Maureen Orman, one of the people who were sponsoring Ahmad, says they expected him to be able to secure a flight to Canada in November.

She said the main reason it can take so long for an application process to finish is simple bureaucracy.

Much of the process is done online, so "there's no one you can really call," she said. "You get a case number and follow it online. You don't actually speak to a human being."

Ramadan described being distraught at the news of Ahmad's death, and at how close he was to completing his joruney to Canada.

Danny Ramadan is a former Syrian refugee now living in Vancouver. (Alyssa K. Faoro/ICC)

"I was just telling him that you know what, this will happen, and this will be possible. You are young, you are capable, you have eight people here who want to fundraise money for you, who want to help you with your application. They want to show you Canada, and the beauty of Vancouver, and help you integrate into the Canadian community."

As a gay man with a heart condition, Ramadan believes his application should have been processed faster than it did.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian, refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, in December 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

But he also said that in the years after the government's initial push to accept thousands of refugees from Syria, the application process has drastically slowed down. Cases that might have taken a month to process now take upwards of a year, said Ramadan.

"Since the story of the Syrian refugees isn't in the public eye any more, it has become longer and longer for applications to be processed," he said.

"This is an unnecessary death of somebody who was soft-spoken and beautiful in the heart and full of hope. He just wanted to be here, and feel appreciated and feel valued for his identity."

Government 'deeply saddened'

"We are deeply saddened by the death of this individual," a representative for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told As It Happens in a statement on Wednesday.

The statement said that "accepting an unlimited number of private sponsorship applications in previous years" led to "a large backlog of applicants" to process leading to longer-than-usual wait times, adding the 2015 Syrian resettlement initiative had faster-than-normal processing times, calling it "a special initiative."

It also added: "In cases of medical emergencies which are brought to our attention, the department has measures to look into a situation on a priority basis. Unfortunately, many refugees face challenging medical conditions."