After a year in sanctuary, Maoua gets new hearing

Posted by admin on Jun 22nd, 2006

Rights breached; refugee can stay. After a year in sanctuary, woman is told hearing should have been held in French Dave Rogers, The Ottawa Citizen

After almost a year in sanctuary in a Sandy Hill church, African refugee claimant Maoua Diomande walked out of Eglise du Sacre Coeur a free woman yesterday. Citizenship and Immigration Canada says Ms. Diomande can stay in Canada for humanitarian reasons after the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages concluded her language rights were violated because her Immigration and Refugee Board hearing was not in French.

The office found that her language rights were not fully respected because she had to complete an English-language form and use an interpreter at her hearing. The soft-spoken native of Ivory Coast has been in sanctuary since just before the end of June 2005. The 44-year-old former elementary school teacher lived in one room at the church on Cumberland Street and Laurier Avenue East to avoid deportation. Supporters led Ms. Diomande from the church into the sunshine on Cumberland Street yesterday afternoon chanting “Maoua! Maoua!”

Ms. Diomande said she is convinced she would have been granted refugee status if she had been allowed to explain in French that Ivorian soldiers raped her at knifepoint in 2001 because she taught poor children whose parents had emigrated from Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast’s hated neighbour. “I really feel free and now I am planning a good reception with my friends and I will celebrate with my MP, Mauril Belanger,” Ms. Diomande said. “I have been living in the church for one year less six days. The hardest thing about it was being inside, seeing the sunshine and all the seasons coming and going. You feel like life is flying and you can’t do anything.”

Ms. Diomande said she never lost faith that she would regain her freedom because of her belief in God and the power of prayer. She added she wanted to thank the people of the two downtown parishes who helped her. “I believe in God, and have friends who believe in God, who were praying. If you believe in God, you don’t have to doubt.” Ms. Diomande said she plans to return to work at her retail store in Hazeldean Mall, selling sunglasses in the summer and hot food in the winter.

Had Ms. Diomande not been harboured by the downtown Catholic parishes of St. Joseph and Sacre Coeur, she would have been deported on June 30, 2005, to the country she fled in 2001. She would have been returned to Ivory Coast because there was no possibility of appealing the decision by a single adjudicator here that her life there would not be endangered in her native country. Ms. Diomande’s 2004 application for refugee status was denied by an Immigration Review Board adjudicator who decided she had fabricated the story about being raped. Her supporters offered to supply medical certificates from two doctors, testifying to the assault, but Canadian officials refused to examine them.

Mr. Belanger said Ms. Diomande’s case showed she was denied fundamental justice. ‘If you can be heard in the official language of your choice, the communication is much clearer than if you do so through an interpreter,”he said. “I have listened to the tapes of the hearing and found a number of places where the meaning was slightly distorted between the answers Maoua gave and the translation. That is why in Canada, it is a fundamental right that you can be heard in either French or English by officers of the court who understand the language. That right was denied to Maoua and the Official Languages Commissioner recognized that.”

Mr. Belanger said the decision of the Immigration and Refugee Board can’t be overturned, but the government is allowing her to remain in Canada because her linguistic rights were ignored.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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