Almost six months after taking refuge in a Montreal Anglican church to escape deportation, an ailing Pakistani woman met federal opposition leader Thomas Mulcair there Feb.14 and appealed for justice and immediate freedom.
Speaking directly in public for the first time and experiencing some difficulty because of shortness of breath due to a heart condition, Khurshid Begum Awan asked that her husband-Khurshid Begum Awan said through an interpreter that she is under extreme stress. Mrs. Awan also appealed for her husband, Muhammad Khalil Awan, deported to Pakistan earlier-be allowed to return to Canada.
Mulcair, member of Parliament for the Montreal riding where Mrs. Awan lived, pledged to do everything he can to help the family.
“It’s a question of humanity,” he said.
The Anglican bishop of Montreal, the Rt. Rev. Barry Clarke, said Mulcair is the only person in the Canadian government who has replied to his appeals on Mrs. Awan’s behalf.
“The Anglican church welcomes the presence of Mr. Mulcair and invites all political parties, institutions and community members to act in support of Mrs. Awan,” Clarke said. “We appeal to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to recognize the urgency of Mrs. Awan’s situation and that of her family and to expedite Mrs. Awan’s stay in Canada by any means available to him.”
Fearing to be detained and deported if she stepped out of the church where she has been living since August (and which media were asked not to identify), Mrs. Awan, has previously depended on supporters and a daughter to speak on her behalf. “I am constantly worried. I need to be able to go to the hospital, but I can’t,” Mrs. Awan said.
Her daughter, Tahira Malik, age 29, and her son, Ali Own, age 15, have been living in the church with Mrs. Awan, although the younger woman, who came to Montreal in 2000 to escape an abusive husband, was granted refugee status. She goes to her home from time to time to cook for the family, and her son has been attending school.
Breaking down in tears several times, the young woman said she is distraught at her inability to do anything to provide a good life for her parents and son. She said she wishes she could meet Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, “if only for one hour,” to make her case.
Supporters of Mrs. Awan, in her late 50s, say she sought sanctuary in the church after staff of the Canadian Border Services Agency in Montreal ordered her to leave for Pakistan Aug. 21, despite doctors’ warning about the risk of travelling with her heart condition. She has had several heart attacks.
Mrs. Awan and her husband came to Canada via the United States in 2011 with a tourist visa and asked for refugee status, saying their lives were at risk from Muslim extremists, notably an anti-Shia group called Sipah-e-Sahaba. Mr. Awan had been a leading member of the minority Shia community in Lahore.
Their claim for refugee status was rejected in April 2013. Mr. Awan was deported soon afterward. Supporters say he has been attacked since his return to Pakistan and is currently in hiding. Mrs. Awan said she rarely has been able to reach him.
“The Canadian Immigration system is fraught with injustice, pushing individuals and families to the brink of death, all too often directly resulting in death itself,” said Farha Najah Hussain, member of the Awan Family Support Committee. “For close to six months, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has actively ignored widespread appeals to address Mrs. Awan’s urgent situation. We call on all politicians and political parties to be accountable for the injustices that the immigration system is inciting on the Awan family and to demand that Mrs. Awan’s status be regularized immediately.”
Harvey Shepherd is editor of The Montreal Anglican, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Montreal.