N.L. refugees enduring long family separations, due to COVID-19 delays

Natsinet Hailemichael and her 6-year-old daughter Sabrin hope their family can finally be reunited this summer after years of being apart. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

In a world without the COVID-19 pandemic, Natsinet Hailemichael and her 6-year-old daughter Sabrin would already have experienced the joy of a long-awaited family reunion.

Instead, they’re faced with frustration and worry, as Hailemichael’s husband — Sabrin’s father — is stuck in Sweden trying to get St. John’s.

The family have been apart for at least three years, and so far in 2020 two flights for him to cross the Altantic Ocean were booked and then cancelled. 

Hailemichael said her husband is also under a time constraint, with his Canadian visa set to expire in August. 

The family are refugees who escaped the authoritarian regime in Eritrea — a country the United Nations has accused of crimes against humanity — and when the pandemic shut much of Canada down the spring, refugee resettlement was also put on pause. 

That unplanned interruption has caused travel problems for thousands of people trying to get to Canada, and the numbers of people meant to arrive in Newfoundland and Labrador has been cut down to a quarter of the norm.

“We’re significantly lower than where we would normally be,” said Megan Morris, the executive director of the Association for New Canadians. 

“Last year for example, we were probably close to 150 by the end of June, whereas this year we have under 40 arrivals.”

Megan Morris is the executive director of the Association for New Canadians in St. John’s. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Nationally it’s a similar story. 

According to the federal government, compared to last year, arrival numbers from January to May have been more than halved. For that period in 2019, the country admitted 10,425. For the same time frame this year it’s just 4,163. 

Worries for families

Terhas Debesay is also a refugee from Eritrea, who has been working long hours at multiple jobs in St. John’s in order to sponsor her mother and siblings, who are living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. 

She’s worried that the pandemic will slow the process. She’s also worried about COVID-19 in their camp, where she said there are no supplies to protect her family from the disease. 

“They need sanitizer or mask but they can’t buy them because I didn’t send them money. There is no way to send money to my family,” she said. 

Making the situation even more stressful, the Ethiopian government plans on shutting down the camp where Debesay’s family is living and move everyone to another camp. 

Terhas Debesay has been working numerous jobs in order to sponsor her family who are living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

As stressful and worrisome as everything is, both Debesay and Hailemichael remain hopeful. 

When Hailemichael is finally reunited with her husband, she said they hope is to expand their family with a sibling for Sabrin.

For Debesay, her plans are to go to church. 

“I’m going to church to worship my god. Because in my country we are Protestant with my family. So in my country they are not allowed to [worship freely],” she said. 

“So when they come to Canada, we are free this time. So we are going to worship our god.”

No date yet

But getting to that church will take time. 

According to a statement from a government of Canada spokesperson, “refugee resettlement will only fully resume once conditions allow, which includes ensuring that there are appropriate measures in place to support refugees upon arrival.”

The statement also said  the “current pandemic presents new challenges” to the country providing a refuge “for those seeking conflict and persecution abroad.” 

The statement also said the government is continuing to consider requests to resettle people in urgent need of protection on a case-by-case basis. 

This is Terhas Debesay’s three siblings and her mother, in the process of going through the application procedures for Debesay to sponsor them to Canada. (Submitted by Terhas Debesay)

On the Newfoundland and Labrador side of things, Megan Morris said that while nothing is moving at the moment, this province is ready for refugees.

“There’s a lot of work being done overseas right now trying to get things moving and to get our capacity back to where it was. But it’s a slow process. We’re updated weekly,” she said. 

“We are ready to receive. We have capacity. We have space. So we’re ready to go.”

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