Family deported to Libya thrilled to be back in Canada
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Adel Benhmuda and his family are home for the holidays.
“I don’t want to blame,” said Benhmuda, 46, as he stepped into the arrivals area at Pearson airport Monday evening with his wife and four sons
“It’s 13 years of hassle, but finally we are here,” he beamed. “I just want to forget everything ... Just keep it happy. And no time to blame anyone now. Just thank God we are here.”
The family’s nightmare is finally over, agreed his wife Aisha Benmatug, 42.
“I’m in Canada?” she said, laughing “It’s a dream come true.”
The refugees from Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya lived in Mississauga from 2000 until 2008 when their refugee claim was denied and they were deported.
After being jailed and tortured twice for a total of six months, Benhmuda fled Libya with his family in 2010 and lived in a shipping container in a refugee camp in the Mediterranean island of Malta for several months before they were eventually granted refugee status there. Meantime, the family’s lawyers in Canada battled to help them return.
In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees formally asked Canada to resettle the Benhmudas, but the federal government refused. The family’s story became public later that year when the Star reported on their plight.
Ottawa changed its mind last January after a Federal Court slammed Canadian immigration officials for treating the Benhmudas unfairly.
Last month, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander waived a $6,800 fee his department was demanding before allowing the former Mississauga family to return. Most of the fee — $6,000 — was to cover the costs of deporting the family to Libya in 2008.
Star readers flooded the paper with offers of donations after the government’s demand for deportation fees was reported. When Ottawa waived the fees, the donations were used to cover the costs of plane tickets to Canada and to rent and furnish a small townhouse for the family in the Mississauga community where they lived five years ago.
Benhmuda, his wife and their two sons fled to Canada from Libya in 2000. Libyan police had been harassing and beating Benhmuda, trying to learn the whereabouts of his brother, part of a group fighting Gadhafi’s dictatorship. In Mississauga, Benhmuda’s wife gave birth to two more sons before their refugee claim was rejected in 2008.
Despite his ordeal, he said he never lost hope that he and his family would return some day.
“Hope was always there with me and my wife and the family,” he said.
The first thing he wants to do Tuesday is thank teacher Ingrid Kerrigan over a Tim Hortons coffee.
It was Kerrigan who first raised the alarm when the family was facing deportation in 2008.
“It was a big thing that she did. She promised me the first thing (we would) do was have a Tim Hortons,” he laughed.
Kerrigan taught Benhmuda’s two Canadian-born boys kindergarten at a Mississauga school. Adam, now 11, and Omar, 13, said they are also excited to see her.
Libyan-born sons Moawiya, 17, and Mohamed, 19, were also grateful to be back in Canada.
“We are really happy to be here and we just want to thank everybody who helped us,” said Moawiya, who is hoping to finish Grade 12.
Mohamed, who was studying biology and science in Malta, wants to continue those studies here.
The Benhmudas’ lawyer, Andrew Brouwer, was relieved to meet his clients for the first time Monday. Brouwer, who usually works to help people avoid deportation, said the case has been “illuminating.”
“Not everyone gets deported to torture,” he said. “But some do. And Canada doesn’t track what happens to people when they get deported.”
A series of mistakes and “poor decisions” by immigration officials who assess risks led to the family’s tragic story.
“One really hopes that when the public and the minister become aware of this that we start adjusting our policies and being much more careful to make sure that we have a process to remedy mistakes,” Brouwer said.
Nobody knows how many failed refugee claimants in Canada are deported to torture, he added.
“The Canadian government puts people on planes and washes its hands.”
Ian and Elinor Mitchell of Georgetown began following the Benhmuda family’s story after vacationing in Malta several years ago.
In Canada, the retirees have signed petitions on the family’s behalf and even attended Federal Court to hear Brouwer plead their case.
When news came over the weekend that the Benhmudas’ visas had been issued and that they would be arriving Monday, the Mitchells were among half a dozen volunteers who have been busy setting up house for the family.
One volunteer donated the contents of her deceased mother’s house to the cause, Elinor noted. Her mother was a refugee from Eastern Europe after the Second World War and would have been “very touched, no doubt, to be helping another refugee family,” she added.
The couple borrowed their daughter’s van to drive the Benhmudas home from the airport to their fully-furnished home. “There is even food in the fridge,” Elinor added.
“What a journey,” Ian said.
The volunteers have also contacted Benhmuda’s former employer at Discount Optical, who has offered him his old job back as a lab technician.
“They are all set to resume their past life in Canada,” Brouwer said.