Fearful woman takes sanctuary to fight deportation

Posted by admin on Jul 7th, 2007

Jul 07, 2007 04:30 AM
Jen Gerson, Staff Reporter

While 11-year-old Alice finds the box of tissues,  her mother cries as she tells how she has come to  live in the choir room of an Anglican church in Mississauga – and is crying still at what might happen if she leaves. Felicia Abimbola knows it was a desperate measure, but when she was ordered after 17 years here to return to her native Nigeria, she faced a
desperate choice: Ask her church for sanctuary, or depart for Africa and decide whether to leave her Canadian-born daughter behind. That was in October. She hasn’t left the Trinity Anglican church since.

Abimbola doesn’t want to return to Nigeria. She says she has no life there: Her husband died shortly after she arrived here and she has since been living with her brother-in-law who, according to Nigerian custom, has become her common-law husband. They share a child, Alice, but he can’t work and isn’t able to care for her.

After arriving in Canada on a two-week visitor’s permit, Abimbola has made three applications to stay on humanitarian grounds. She’s awaiting a decision on the third.

Few illegal immigrants use it, but there is a last resort for those desperate to stay: church
sanctuary. No law protects them there, but it’s a long-standing tradition that the state won’t invade church space to take someone into custody.

Citizenship and Immigration knows of 10 such cases across the country – people living in
places of worship to avoid deportation. Abimbola is on that list.

For nine months now, she’s has been living in a room with white walls and fluorescent lights. It’s furnished with donated armchairs and twin beds pushed together, the piano tucked to the side and her girl’s stuffed toys scattered about. Alice – too shy to be in a picture – wears a blue denim shirt and orange Croc shoes. During the interview, she says little, sits politely next to her mother and doesn’t fidget. She sleeps at her father’s nearby apartment but spends long hours every day with her mother at the church near the
Queen Elizabeth Way and Hurontario St.

When the church heard of Abimbola’s plight, the vote was unanimous to give her sanctuary. They chose the choir room for her to inhabit because it has two large, curtained windows and is carpeted. Still, it’s been hard.

“I can’t sleep at night,” she says.

The church kitchen is far away. Going there alone makes her nervous and Abimbola says she dislikes living so close to a graveyard. And she’s angry. She’s no criminal, she says. She has a diploma as a personal support worker. She’s not looking to be a burden. “I’m not lazy. If I have the papers to work, I  can work my head off. I’ll work in any job.”

Chantal Desloges, Abimbola’s lawyer, says her situation is rare. “(Churches) really are a last resort,” Desloges  says. “It’s a weird combination of circumstances. You’ve got to have a church that’s willing to take that kind of responsibility. It says something about (Abimbola) that this church is willing to go so far to back her up.”

“It’s still considered to be like house arrest,” says Rev. Majed El Shafie, founder of One Free World International, an advocacy group working on Abimbola’s behalf.

Still, rules are rules. “Canada has an internationally recognized system for people fleeing persecution in their home countries,” says Karen Shad-Evelyn at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. There are risk assessments and safeguards. “But it’s integral to the system that people respect our immigration laws,” she says.

Desloges says it could be another two years before the government rules on Abimbola’s latest appeal. “(Nigeria) is no place for an innocent child,” she says. But with no other family in Canada, Abimbola says her options for Alice are limited if she’s deported.

If she gets to stay? “I’m going to shout hallelujah first. Then I’m going to hold my baby.”

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