Fiorito: Here is how we harm the wounded

Posted by admin on Jul 25th, 2011

Published On Mon Jul 25 2011, Toronto Star

The women wanted to talk but they were nervous and afraid. They live in Toronto, under the radar, without immigration status. One of the women had her refugee claim denied; she is appealing on humanitarian grounds. The other is being hunted as I write. I met them through Ruth Campbell, a research fellow at the Wilson Centre at the Toronto General Hospital. Ruth has just completed a study of some two dozen women who are here illegally, and who need medical help and can’t get it. Are they illegal? Ruth said, “The term I use is ‘undocumented; it doesn’t have the same judgment that ‘illegal’ has.” And then she said, “The women in the study, some of them have been tortured or raped, or they have had their sons shot in front of their eyes, or their husbands have been kidnapped; some of them, if they came forward, would be deported.”

Why is immigration such a problem?

“It’s clear that, when they come from a country where they can’t trust the government or the authorities, and the government here says, ‘Trust us,” what often happens is that the women will only tell part of their story; if they are denied, they’ll appeal on humanitarian grounds, but when they add the additional information it will often be seen as a lie.”

You knew that.

Here is what you might not know.

“Some of the women have fled conditions so horrific they need mental health support to unload the trauma. They can’t get help, and the organizations who work with them here can’t speak up on their behalf.”

Let the women speak for themselves, then.

The woman in the sweater said, “In my country, I graduated from law school. I worked for a long time as a lawyer. I was involved in political activity because I didn’t want my country to fall into a dictatorship. I suffered persecution, physical and psychological.

“I applied to be a refugee but I was denied because they said no one was killing me or my family. But my son, they held a broken bottle to his neck and said they would kill him if I didn’t stop.”

And then she said, in a low and quiet voice, that she had been raped by three men, and she wept.

The woman in the shirt said, “I came here fleeing domestic violence. My application was denied. I have appealed, but I got a deportation order and I am living in fear.” Her story?

“My husband tried to kill me with a knife. It was night. I ran away. I looked for help from my neighbour. My whole life with him was violence; I was raped by him and beaten.” She, too, wept.

And then she said, “I came as a refugee claimant.” The problem? “They said I didn’t seek support from the police in my country.” She smiled through her own tears. “In my country, you can buy a police for $50. In domestic violence, they say, ‘Oh, it’s between husband and wife.’”

She dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “My husband used to tell me that the police, for him, were nothing; the law was nothing. I knew I had no support.”

I turned back to the woman in the sweater. She told me that she had fled first to the States. “There, I cleaned houses, I delivered newspapers, I worked as a nanny, I cleaned roads, I cleaned bathrooms, I worked as a cook.”

The woman in the shirt said, “I have worked here, sometimes under the table. I was a nanny for very low pay; $6 an hour. I negotiated that; they wanted to pay less. I had a friend, a nanny who was paid $1 an hour.” When you face deportation, you are deprived of the right to complain.

She continued. “I was working as a nanny from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. My employers were professionals. It’s hard to find a good job. I’m not working for them now. I quit.”

Ruth said, “Immigration will often offer to make a deal with people.” The women fear such deals. The women also have larger fears, and chronic illness to go along with their fears.

The woman in the shirt said, “When the phone rings, I shake in every part of my body. I have depression. I don’t want to go out. I fear the police, and immigration.” I asked her to be more specific.

She said, “I have a condition in my uterus. I have some other issues in my body. But I can’t go to a specialist. I think the stress aggravates my conditions. We are being treated like criminals. We are not criminals.”

She wept again.

The woman in the sweater said, “I have had 10 years of insomnia and anxiety. There is a pain in my side. I have some thyroid problems, and inflammation in my liver, and swelling in my feet, and I’m overweight because of my thyroid.”

The woman in the shirt said, “I lost a tooth last year. I waited until it got so bad. Now I think I will lose another, but again I have to wait.”

And I don’t care what you think about the ins and outs of immigration, or what you think is or is not illegal, or who you think belongs; I am angry that, in Canada, we would treat the wounded so harshly.

Is there any optimism?

Ruth said, “The study looks at the issues of mental health, food security, fear, abuse, violence, torture. The pieces will come out in a month, and then over the next year.”

The woman in the shirt said, “I can’t express the fear, the terror.” Ruth will speak for her, and for the others.

Are you listening?

Joe Fiorito appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email:

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