As It Happens

Asylum seeker makes it across the Canadian border — only to find he has Stage 4 cancer

Taha El Taha's doctors say the best thing for his health would be to have his family by his side — but Canada has denied their visitor visa applications.

Taha El Taha is fighting to bring his family to Canada to be by his side while he undergoes treatment

Taha El Taha discovered he had stage 4 cancer several days after crossing the border into Canada from the U.S. (Rami Alsaqqa)

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Taha El Taha's doctors say the best thing for his health would be to have his family by his side — but Canada has denied their applications for temporary visitor visas.

The asylum seeker fled Beirut last year for the U.S., then crossed the border on foot from New York to Quebec in December — only to find out a few days later that he has Stage 4 cancer.

"It would mean a lot for me because here I am alone. There is no family, no friends for me here," Taha, 36, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"They can support me, give me emotional support and family support to overcome my disease."

Taha says he desperately misses his two children back in Lebanon. The asylum seeker is trying to get Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to issue a temporary residency permit to his family. (Rami Alsaqqa)

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told As It Happens it cannot comment on specific cases.

"We understand that decisions on immigration cases can have a profound impact on individuals' lives. Our government is committed to ensuring that every case is assessed based on its merits, in a fair manner and in accordance with Canada's laws," the minister's office said in an emailed statement.

Taha, whose story was originally reported by Global News, is a stateless Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia.

He had been working in Lebanon as an electrical engineer, when he said gangs associated with Hezbollah  — a militant group considered a terrorist organization by the Canadian government — demanded he work with them as an informant. 

When he refused, he said Hezbollah burned down his house.

"My life is in danger and they want to kill me now," Taha said. 

'Safe country'

Taha left behind his wife and two young children, ages three and seven, obtained a visa to the U.S. and fled to Philadelphia.

He said he initially planned to apply for refugee status in the U.S., but an immigration lawyer advised him against it due to the current anti-immigration climate in that country.

After watching news footage of would-be refugees crossing the U.S border into Canada, Taha decided his best bet would be to head north.

He took a bus to Plattsburgh, N.Y., and hailed a cab to the border.

He was one of 1,916 people to cross by foot from the U.S. into Quebec last December.

"I had at that moment a shortness in breathing but I thought that [was] because I am tired and I didn't sleep well," he said.

"I feel safe ... in safe country."

He applied for refugee status, but has yet to have his claim heard. 

The federal government had a backlog of 48,974 refugee claims to contend with in March alone, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada website.

In 2017, RCMP officers apprehended 20,593 asylum seekers between official border checkpoints. More than 90 per cent of those crossings happened in Quebec.

The diagnosis

Two days after arriving in Canada, he began to feel pain in his chest and went to the emergency room.

That's when he found out that he has Stage 4 colorectal cancer that has spread to his thorax. 

He's since had six sessions of chemotherapy, he said, and he has one friend in Montreal who checks in on him.

"He calls me every two to or three days, brings some groceries and asks me if I want anything, if I need any help," he said.

Taha said he talks to his wife on the phone every night and they pray they will see each other again. (Rami Alsaqqa)

Taha had a doctor's appointment on Monday, he said. He is now awaiting the results of a blood test before undergoing surgery to remove his tumours. 

But his doctors say the best thing for him now would be to have the support of his family. 

Immigration consultant Rami Alsaqqa applied on Taha's behalf for temporary visitor's visas for his wife and children, so they can be with him as he undergoes treatment.

"We believe, and the doctors believe, that he can really benefit from the support of his family," Alsaqqa told the Montreal Gazette.

The Gazette also obtained copies of letters of support from Montreal oncologist Jamil Asselah and thoracic surgeon Lorenzo Ferri, which were sent to the federal government. 

"We feel it would be greatly beneficial to him to have the support and comfort of his wife and children in the face of the unfortunate diagnosis and upcoming major surgery," wrote Ferri.

Application denied

But the application was denied, as was a subsequent humanitarian appeal. 

Taha's family could not prove they would not attempt to remain in Canada after the visas expired, Alsaqqa said. 

Nor could they prove they have sufficient funds or assets to support themselves while in Canada.

We pray every night that we can see each other and be a family together again.- Taha El Taha, asylum seeker

Now Taha is Hussen to issue a special permit to allow El Taha's family to visit before he undergoes surgery.

The minister can issue what's called a temporary resident permit to any inadmissible foreign national if it is deemed "justified in the circumstances."

"We pray every night that we can see each other and be a family together again," Taha said, moments before breaking down in tears and sobs.

"I hope I can see them again. I miss them very much."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview with Taha El Taha produced by Kevin Robertson.