Out in the Open

Refugee parents can bring their kids to Canada, so why can't kids bring their parents?

Elisée Makola and Humayun Sawar came to Canada without their parents and have yet to be reunited years later.

Elisée Makola and Humayun Sawar came to Canada years ago and have yet to be reunited with their parents

Humayun Sawar poses with "Non-Violence" in New York City, outside the United Nations. (Peshtaz Karimi )

For Elisée Makola, Canada had long felt like a safe haven. 

"I always hoped Canada would be home for me," Makola said, speaking to CBC's Out in the Open. "We can't deny how great Canada is." 

Makola, 22, first entered Canada five years ago, after feeling her native Congo three years before that. But the country she arrived in wasn't quite what she'd hoped. 

"I've never felt like this is home." 

Humayun Sawar stands inside the United Nations. (Peshtaz Karimi)

Humayun Sawar never intended to come to Canada at all. He arrived at the age of 14, after his participation in a model United Nations conference in the United States ended up having consequences for his family back in Afghanistan. 

"There was a letter dropped at our house saying, 'What do I have to do with the United States? Why am I there?'" Sawar said. "And the letter concluded with a threat that [the Taliban] will harm us — our family — until they find out what's going on… So it was not safe for me to go back." 

He came to Canada instead. 

Both Sawar and Makola arrived in Canada as unaccompanied minors, leaving their parents, their siblings, and the only lives they knew far behind. And years later, both have yet to be reunited with their parents. 

"It's been almost five years I'm here. So where is my family?" said Makola. "I'm just so angry about that." 

Unlike Makola, who found herself completely alone in Canada, Sawar was fortunate enough to have a brother-in-law in Toronto, who had already obtained residency. Sawar's sister — his brother-in-law's wife — has since been able to join them in Canada. But their parents' efforts to do the same have been unsuccessful.

Elisée Makola (Submitted by Elisée Makola)

"A child arriving alone and then being granted refugee protection in Canada has no legal right to bring his or her parents to join them in Canada," explained Osgoode Hall Law School professor Geraldine Sadoway in an email to Out in the Open

That's because Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) defines a "family member" as a spouse, common-law partner, or dependent child — a definition that excludes parents and siblings. In a statement to Out in the Open, an IRCC spokesperson said this policy exists to protect children from "such dangers as trafficking and other forms of abuse and exploitation." 

For Makola and Sawar, however, it's a policy that has kept them separated from their parents, with few legal paths to reunion. 

The price of leaving parents behind

"When you have your parents, it's like a really strong pillar behind you," Sawar said. "I don't have that anymore… I can only talk over the phone with them. I can't see them. I can't hug them. It's not easy." 

Protracted separation from her family has left Makola feeling robbed of a childhood. 

"I've had to face emotions that even adults never face. I have to come across maturely, to make decisions maturely. I had to learn how to put up a face — put up a wall — act like nothing is bad, everything is good and under control. But inside there's a little girl who's missing, and needed love and support." 

Sadoway — who specializes in cases like Makola's and Sawar's — has submitted a proposal to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, requesting that refugee children be granted the same rights to family unity as refugee adults.

She said it's difficult to know how many children are affected by the way the federal government currently defines "family member", and IRCC keeps no statistics. "If the kids do not go to lawyers, then the lawyers are not going to know about the cases either." 

Makola and Sawar, meanwhile, are eagerly awaiting the day they are reunited with their parents. 

"Even joy won't even be close to describing how I'm going to feel, seeing my family again," said Makola. "That's the feeling that gives me strength."

"It's going to be the best day of my life when all this waiting is done," said Sawar. "I'll feel like I'm flying or something."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Parent-Child Seperation".