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Family reunification in Canada further complicated by COVID-19

Last Updated Oct 2, 2020 at 3:53 pm PDT

Jennifer Hasenknopf and Munir El-Kadi are pictured with their two children in Abu Dhabi in 2005. (Submitted)

Families separated from loved ones due to immigration bureaucracy say COVID-19 is further complicating their efforts

Feds are set to provide an update on border measures and travel restrictions on Friday

BREAKING UPDATE: Beginning Oct. 8, extended family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to enter the country as long as they follow quarantine rules and get authorization.

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — She met her husband while protesting the Iraq War in 2002. Eighteen years later, Jennifer Hasenknopf is in Vancouver waiting to be reunited with the father of her children, but it isn’t war that’s keeping them apart — it’s Canadian bureaucracy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant distance from many of our loved ones this year, but Hasenknopf and her husband, Munir El-Kadi, haven’t physically seen each other for almost two years.

“What the pandemic has done is it’s basically erased any last chance of even reuniting. I really feel like we’ve been backed into a corner,” says Hasenknopf.

Hasenknopf says she feels like a second-class citizen in her own country and that families should be a priority during a global pandemic.

“We should be focused on the pandemic and keeping ourselves healthy, rather than an extraordinary amount of stress and a more challenging situation than the average Canadian,” she says.

Jennifer Hasenknopf is pictured with her husband Munir El-Kadi in 2014. (Submitted)

The separated couple met amidst the buildup to the war in Iraq, where El-Kadi is from. They married soon after and lived together in the United Arab Emirates for 15 years.

However, Hasenknopf had to rush back home to Vancouver with her sons after she lost her job in 2018. Since then, the family hasn’t been able to reunite as El-Kadi’s visa application remains in limbo. He had to celebrate his 50th birthday away from family earlier this year.

They make up one of thousands of families that have been separated by Canadian immigration rules, a number that rapidly increased as COVID-19 lockdowns shut down borders. Activists say the situation could get much worse for families as the pandemic drags on.

It’s attracted attention from some members of parliament, including Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan, who is petitioning for Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino to “accelerate the reunification of families with ongoing Spousal Sponsorship Applications.”

Worsening mental health

After the national lockdown in March, all non-essential travel to Canada was stopped. Despite two exemptions announced in June for immediate family members, the pandemic has also meant all visa applications have been delayed across the board.

The current rules also exclude adult children of Canadians and committed partners, which includes LGBTQ+ couples.

This has been disastrous for family members away from their loved ones, according to activist Dr. David Edward-Ooi Poon, who founded the group Faces of Advocacy.

Edward-Ooi Poon has been separated from his Irish partner for almost 200 days, and formed his group in May. Since then, he says, more than 7,000 other Canadians separated from their family members have joined.

“Our question to the government is: There’s a good quarantine plan for NHL players and film crews. Why is that not good enough to reunite families? What exactly is it about a hockey stick or a film camera that gives the government less concern when it comes to COVID?” he asks.

Edward-Ooi Poon conducted an internal survey of over 1,000 separated family members he found through his group, and the results show their mental health has been worsening.

After the lockdowns went into place, the number of members contemplating self-harm nearly doubled, from 16 per cent to 30 per cent, he says.

With 85 per cent of the families separated for more than five months, Edward-Ooi Poon says the federal government needs to make this a priority going forward.

Layers of bureaucracy

The government’s response thus far has extended to promising to process more spousal applications like El-Kadi’s.

They plan to digitize paper applications and introduce further ways to provide biometric information, such as fingerprints.

However, biometric centres in many countries remain closed as the coronavirus continues to spread.

Kwan and Edward-Ooi Poon also point out that this decision does nothing to help adult children and LGBTQ+ couples.

“While I am dismayed it took over 6 months to get an answer, I am glad that the voices of separated families are finally heard,” Kwan said on Twitter.

The NDP MP’s petition on spousal reunification in the House of Commons, which was presented last Friday, asks for a special visa to be made for spouses stuck abroad and is expected to receive a government response soon.

However, Edward-Ooi Poon wants a more substantive response.

“If there is no movement on this, we have the choice of further escalation. If the government will not tell us exactly why they’re delaying this, we as the voting public will be going after them,” he says.

The group has already filed petitions and held meetings with MPs. Hasenknopf, for her part, plans to rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery every week until her husband can return.

“I don’t know…I don’t know how I’m coping. I’m hoping he’ll be here by Christmas. I’m praying that he will be here by Christmas,” she says.

The federal government’s changes, however, still does not deal with the issue of family sponsorship and Hasenknopf’s situation.

Families which require visas to enter Canada will still have to go through the normal process, which is the subject of Kwan’s petition in the House.