Pakistani family walks out of church after 18 months of sanctuary

Posted by admin on Feb 29th, 2008

Pakistani family walks out of church after 18 months of sanctuary
Steve Lambert, THE CANADIAN PRESS . Published Friday February 29th, 2008

WINNIPEG – A Pakistani family who lived in a church for 18 months to avoid deportation took a short drive this week and came back with their freedom. Hassan Raza, his wife and their six children spent most of the last 1 1/2 years holed up in the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church in Winnipeg, afraid of being arrested and deported if they ventured outside.  But the family has been granted temporary resident status after negotiating a deal with federal immigration officials that required them to make a one-hour drive to the U.S. border where, technically at least, they left Canada for a brief time and then re-entered.

“I’m very happy and lucky. A lot of people supported me. I’ve got back my job. I (can) support my family,” Raza, 39, said Friday as he stood near the church organ.

“I believe that we are free now,” said his eldest daughter, Rubab, 14, whose cloistered life has stood in stark contrast to that of most teenagers.

As part of Pakistan’s Shia Muslim minority, the Razas say they would face religious persecution in their native land. Their ordeal started Aug 3, 2006, when they were hours away from being deported after losing appeals to stay in Canada.

A family friend approached church officials, who had to make a quick decision not knowing how monumental a task they were about to take on.

“I was dimly aware that other churches had gone down this road, but (was unaware of) the sheer number of volunteers, the amount of financial support it would take to keep this family clothed and fed, etc, etc. We just went into it blind, but we went into it with a good heart,” Rev. Barb Janes said.

Hassan Raza had to stop working for fear of being arrested the moment he ventured out of the church’s small yard. For six months, the children were schooled by volunteers inside the church, until Janes was assured by the government that the kids would not be apprehended going to and from a nearby public school.

The youngest child, Seema, turned 1 the day the family entered the church and has spent most of her life under sanctuary. Neighbourhood kids were brought to the church to play with the Raza children, two of whom were born in Canada, giving them at least some semblance of a normal childhood.

After getting nowhere in the courts, the family’s lawyer dropped legal challenges last year and started working on a compromise with immigration officials.

“It was a lot easier to deal with the officials when you’re not suing them in Federal Court or taking them to Federal Court, complaining how bad they are and how they’re breached principles of natural justice,” said lawyer Kenneth Zaifman.

On Thursday morning, the family drove to the border at Pembina, N.D. – effectively fulfilling their long-standing deportation order – then re-entered Canada with temporary resident status.

It was a nerve-racking drive.

“We were kind of scared, especially my mama,” said Rubab. “She wasn’t sure if she wanted to take the step and go ahead and go to the border.”

Hassan Raza is planning to resume his job with a painting company in the coming days. The family hopes to eventually gain permanent resident status.

But they won’t be leaving the church quite yet. Their first task is to find a home of their own.

“The church is looking for a house (for us), and it’s going to take a while, so we’ll be here for a while,” Rubab said.

At any given time, several churches across Canada are sheltering people facing deportation. It’s a risky venture because sanctuary is a custom and not a recognized legal right.

Church officials can be jailed or fined up to $50,000 for helping people avoid deportation. Police have the right to enter churches and seize refugees, although the only recent example was the 2004 case in a Montreal church of an Algerian man, who was also wanted on an arrest warrant stemming from a protest.

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