Fight continues after Algerian refugees gain status

Posted by admin on Jul 17th, 2003

Montreal Mirror, 17 July 2003
Craig Segal

Massaouda Kellou is the matriarch of the Algerian refugee movement. Shy of media attention, the 38-year-old mother of three works behind the scenes. She goes to every meeting. She rents vans and drives Algerians facing deportation and their supporters to rallies in Montreal and Ottawa. She comes across as the movement’s strong and silent brick-and-mortar foundation.

Yet she breaks down when she tells her story, in the smoking section of a barbecue chicken restaurant in Ottawa last Friday, July 11.

Kellou met her husband Ismael for the first time when she was 18, at their arranged marriage. In 1991, they were running a pastry shop near Algiers until, one day, Islamic fundamentalists showed up demanding $200,000. The couple left within days, moving in with their respective parents in Algiers. After they received more threats, Ismael had a nervous breakdown. The couple flew to Tunisia without their three daughters. It was the only country they could enter without a visa. They got multiple entry visas to England. In 1995, they returned to Algeria for their daughters. Then they flew from London to Montreal on two fake passports that cost $2,500 each.

In April 2002, when Canada resumed deporting some Algerian refugee applicants after a five-year moratorium, Kellou plunged into activism for the first time in her life, as did her husband and three young daughters. They attended up to three meetings a week and protested every Monday at the federal immigration offices on René- Lévesque W.

Yasmine, now 19, is their eldest. She says it is hard to juggle activism, school and a social life. “My life is very different from my friends’,” she says. “My friends call me and ask me to go out and I say ‘I can’t, I’m going to a demonstration.’ Sometimes it bothers me how much I’ve seen.”

After over a year of struggle, Kellou’s family is taking a break. They will spend a week in the country. It’s one sign among many that the movement is winding down.

A Long, Hard History

The story of the non-status Algerians begins in 1992, with the start of the Algerian civil war. To date, it has claimed 150,000 lives. The mass exodus from Algeria that followed boosted the number of Algerians living in Canada to 40,000, almost all of them in Montreal. In 1997, Ottawa stopped deporting refugees to Algeria because of the spiralling violence there.

Then, early last year, Ottawa reversed its position. Approximately 1,000 refused refugee applicants who had made new lives for themselves here were threatened with deportation. Seven months later, after a series of high-profile demonstrations and protests, Ottawa and Quebec came up with a solution. The federal government would take a second look at their applications and, if the applicants fit a list of criteria, it would pass their applications on to Quebec for approval.

The Algerians and their supporters, however, found the criteria excessively strict: all applications had to be made within three months of the announcement or three months of the refusal of their refugee claim. They would also be excluded if they had a criminal record, no matter how minor, or if they lived outside Quebec. In some cases, the Algerians say, Ottawa is simply excluding people who could not pay their refugee application fees on time.

On May 29, 10 Algerians and two supporters staged a sit-in in the waiting room of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre’s office. The Ottawa Dozen demanded a moratorium on deportations. Police arrested them, electrocuted them with taser guns and charged them with criminal mischief.

Threats Past and Present

Last Friday was the first hearing for the Ottawa Dozen. Forty Algerians and supporters drove from Montreal to the capital. The Ottawa judge set the trial for August 8. Afterwards, the Algerians held a small rally and press conference across the river in Hull (the conditions of their court case forbid the Ottawa Dozen from meeting in Ottawa). The convoy was escorted by Ottawa motorcycle cops all the way to the Quebec meeting point.

Before a handful of journalists, Fawzi Hoceini, 23, summed up the Algerian position. “We have been ignored. Canada signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees. They promised not to harm them, not to torture or brutalize them with taser guns. Denis Coderre is responsible for that. He’s breaking the law.

“We are not citizens here, but they have to at least consider us human beings,” Hoceini continued. “We ran away from war. We ran away from a lot of conflicts. Now we are facing another government that is trying to take our rights away. “When they arrested me, a police officer told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be deported anyway,’” Hoceini added, before emotion overcame him.

The last fight?

Back at the restaurant, one of the movement’s leaders tells me the mood has changed since the Ottawa arrests. “Now people want to protest less,” says Mohamed Cherfi, 34. “They are intimidated.”

They could also be protesting less because they seem to have won their battle. Of the original 1,000 non-status Algerians, Ottawa has so far approved and transferred 530 files to Quebec, according to provincial immigration spokesperson Marie-Josée Duhamel. Of the 279 files Quebec has re-examined so far, it has rejected outright only one applicant and asked that eight find Canadian sponsors. Duhamel could not say how many, if any, of the remaining 500 applications will be transferred to Quebec.

How did this government aboutface happen? “It’s a very specific situation,” says Immigration Quebec spokesperson Robert Gervais. “They were almost all in the Montreal area. And Minister Coderre said it is an exceptional situation and decided to have an exceptional solution.”

Massaouda Kellou says the Algerians have paid a high price. “The Algerians who were arrested are traumatized, but they don’t show it,” she says. “We are helping each other to heal. We spend lots of time together. We have lots of talks.”

I ask Kellou if she has plans to leave the movement after she gets back from her one-week vacation. “No, I will fight until all the Algerians are allowed to stay. It’s like someone with an illness. Injustice is my illness. When it’s gone, I’ll be healthy.”

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