Reprieve for woman who hid in church sanctuary

Posted by admin on Sep 24th, 2008

September 24, 2008. Stuart Laidlaw. Toronto Star

For a Nigerian woman claiming sanctuary in a Mississauga church to avoid deportation, getting arrested may have been the best thing that ever happened to her. Felicia (Ola) Abimbola Akinwalere took up residence in Trinity Anglican Church two days ahead of her scheduled deportation in October 2006. Since then, she has rarely ventured outside, but left the building on Monday, only to have two Peel Region police officers arrest her. With Akinwalere in custody in an immigration holding centre on Rexdale Blvd., within hours, her lawyers and immigration officials negotiated a stay of the deportation order against her.

“She’s free,” says Rev. Steven Mackison, the minister at the church where Akinwalere has lived for the past two years. “Immigration has agreed not to deport her, and that’s all we ever wanted.”

Police told Akinwalere they were acting on a public complaint, Mackison says, adding recent media coverage of her plight heightened attention on the case. The church had received only one phone call complaining about Akinwalere staying there, and many more in support.

“Boy, what a long two hours that was,” says Mackison, who sat with Akinwalere during negotiations.

Akinwalere is happy now, he says, but was inconsolable immediately after the arrest. “She was terrified,” Mackison says. “I came into the (jail) cell and she just broke down and wept and wept.”

Mackison says efforts will now be focused on convincing an immigration review board to let her stay in Canada permanently. With her deportation order stayed, Akinwalere is free to live wherever she wants – though Mackison could not say where that would be.

Akinwalere had applied three times to stay in Canada, but was ordered deported before a ruling could be made on the third request.

She came to Canada 18 years ago on a temporary visa to visit family. Back in Nigeria, her husband took part in a failed military coup, went missing and was declared dead.

As the wife of an army officer involved in a coup attempt, Akinwalere feared for her life and did not return when her visa expired. Instead, she stayed in Canada and married her husband’s brother (a Canadian citizen) in keeping with Nigerian tradition. The two have a 12-year-old daughter, Alice, who had taken refuge with her mother and only left the church to go to school.

Having Alice added to Akinwalere’s fear of returning to Nigeria, where the girl would face female circumcision – a dangerous and painful procedure banned in Nigeria, but still widely practised, according to Human Rights Watch. If Alice was left in Canada, the two would be separated and the girl left in the care of her disabled father.

Sanctuary offers no legal protection in Canada, but while police or federal officials can go into a church to remove a person under a deportation order at any time, they rarely do. Immigration Canada has refused to discuss Akinwalere’s case, citing privacy concerns.

The church had planned a rally this Sunday to press Akinwalere’s case that the deportation order be lifted while her application to stay is heard.

But with this week’s events leaving her free to live wherever she wants, Mackison says, “the rally will now be a celebration.”

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