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Families who rescued loved ones from Gaza feel ‘scammed’ by Canadian government

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The young woman’s first real hope that she might survive the nightmare she endured in the Gaza Strip came on the same night she was sure that she and her family would be killed.


Late last year, Canada promised it would help bring extended family members of citizens out of the besieged territory. But by last month, delays robbed the 20-year-old woman of any faith the Canadian government would help her family leave.


As the weeks went on, she and her relatives lived under near constant bombardment, she said. On days when they couldn’t find canned food, adult family members opted to go hungry so children could stay fed.


In mid-February, their fortunes changed. Her name, along with the names of her family members, appeared on a list of those approved to cross the border into Egypt.


The Canadian government had nothing to do with it.


In an act of desperation, the young woman’s family in Canada paid more than $70,000 to a private company to negotiate the exit with Egyptian and Israeli officials.


The news had her family literally jumping for joy that night.


But within hours, fear reigned as the Rafah region, considered the last relatively safe place in the territory, was hit with a massive bombardment of Israeli airstrikes.


The doors and windows were blown out of the one-room apartment where the young woman slept alongside 40 women and children.


They made it through the night, and when the sun started to rise, the family gathered what little they had and cautiously made their way to the border.


The idea that she was leaving her life behind didn’t feel real until she was on a bus. Next, they would all be starting anew in Canada, which was sure to issue her family a visa now that they had escaped. Or so she thought.


“We thought the only issue would be to get out of Gaza, and then it would be easy,” the young woman said in Arabic through a translator. The Canadian Press agreed not to name her for fear of reprisal from Egyptian or Canadian authorities.


“Our only hope is to go to Canada,” she implored.


But that hope is nearly dashed.


She and the rest of her family have not heard from the Canadian government about visas, even as their legal status in Egypt is about to expire in days.


In the meantime, the family members cannot work or access medical care. They are being supported entirely by their relatives abroad, who already paid exorbitant sums to get them out of danger.


The uncertainty has left those in Canada feeling duped.


“They fooled us,” said the woman’s aunt, who lives in Canada and has been working to bring her relatives to safety since the war broke out on Oct. 7. The Canadian Press agreed not to name the aunt for fear of identifying the family.


She said the Immigration Department charged fees to apply for the program Ottawa announced in December, but she has seen little evidence of anything Canada has done to actually help her family.


“There is a big question mark about the level of effort that Canada is putting on this program,” she said.


“They just make excuses.”


The government launched a program in January to offer temporary visas to as many as 1,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have extended family in Canada, on the condition that their families support them when they arrive.


Immigration Minister Marc Miller has been vocal about his frustration at Canada’s impotence when it comes to facilitating the crossing of approved family members into Egypt.


He did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the delays experienced by people who managed to escape on their own.


The government won’t say how many people have applied to the program, which offers temporary refuge to parents, grandparents, siblings and grandchildren of Canadian citizens and permanent residents. The spouses and children of those extended family members are also eligible.


As of March 4, 986 applications have been accepted into processing. Only 12 of those people have made it out of Gaza, finished the screening process and been approved to come to Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a statement.


The war began after Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.


Israel swiftly retaliated with airstrikes and an eventual ground assault in a conflict that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.


The war has driven 80 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes, and United Nations officials say a quarter of the population is starving.


Toronto-based immigration lawyer Debbie Rachlis says she represents at least 50 Palestinians in Egypt who managed to escape without Canada’s help and are waiting for a Canadian visa. She’s aware of roughly 100 similar cases being handled by other lawyers, she said.


“The heartbreaking part is the people who will not be able to get out because their family members don’t have the kinds of resources or don’t have those sorts of connections,” Rachlis said.


People who left before they finished the Canadian application process worry they may no longer qualify, she said.


Rani Hemaid paid thousands of dollars to a private company for what he describes as bribes to get his parents, brother, nieces and nephews out of Gaza to Cairo in December, where they’re now running out of money and hoping for any word from the Canadian government.


Since they arrived before Canada’s visa program opened, it’s not clear if they still qualify, he said.


In Gaza City, his sister, her husband and their five children are also waiting as they face constant danger from military strikes and starvation, Hemaid said.


His nephew, Yamin, is just 10 and has a broken leg that cannot be treated because there are no hospitals left standing, he said.


Yamin apologized to his mother recently for ever being picky about food, his uncle said.


“‘I would eat any food you provide me now,'” Hemaid quoted, his voice full of emotion as he spoke from his home in Hamilton, Ont.


Hemaid was one of many Palestinian Canadians who advocated for a special immigration program to bring the extended families of Canadians to safety.


When the visa program first opened, people called him to thank him for his advocacy, saying their families would finally be safe, he said.


Now they call him to say they wished it never opened — that the false hope has crushed them.


“We look at it, as Palestinian Canadians, that the Canadian government has scammed us, has fooled us,” he said. “They do not care about us.”


He said he worries Palestinians will stay in Gaza, risking starvation and death, because there is so much uncertainty about the Canadian visa program.


It’s not clear who will be accepted, or how long it will take. Many don’t have the money to live day-to-day in uncertainty in Cairo, with no income, staying in hotels or renting rooms from Airbnb.


“I’m just so desperate. I’m so hopeless,” he said.


The rules stipulate that extended family members applying to the program must be in Gaza on the date of their application, said Yaman Marwah, an Ottawa-based immigration lawyer.


Canada has offered no income or settlement supports to family members who are granted a visa, nor did the government waive application fees that total about $185 per person, Marwah said.


Those applying on behalf of their families had to sign a form promising they were not on welfare and that they would cover all costs.


Marwah said he’s not sure which is better: “Giving people hope that there may be a way out and having them fight for it, like Canada did — or not giving them hope from the outset, and telling them, ‘You know what? We can’t help you.'”


The young woman in Egypt said she feels luckier than those still left behind in Gaza.


Small indulgences like running water and a bag of chips feel like a dream, she said, adding she wants nothing more than to resume her regular life.


“This hope is on the shoulders of the Canadian government,” she said.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2024.


— With files from The Associated Press.

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