Families with members stuck in China call for third Canadian rescue flight

Chinese Canadians and others with family stuck in China's Hubei province are calling for the federal government to send a third plane to repatriate Canadians, visa holders and permanent residents alike. 

The city of Wuhan, China, was locked down in late January, leaving visitors with little or no opportunity to leave.

A group that uses the messaging app WeChat to organize represents at least 50 families with loved ones trapped in Hubei province. 

A letter the group has sent to Global Affairs Canada, and plans to send to several Members of Parliament, states people still trapped either didn't have enough warning to prepare for the two Canadian flights, felt misinformed about who was allowed to board or didn't sign onto the government's registry quickly enough. 

"We strongly urge the Canadian government to repatriate these families promptly by deploying another chartered flight. The longer this ordeal carries on, and the longer the lockdown continues for these unfortunate individuals, the more danger it will impose on the Canadians stuck there," the letter reads. 

"We cannot bear the thought of losing our family members if something were to happen in the next few weeks." 

One Canadian citizen, Elaine Cheng, said she chose not to board either plane after learning her husband, who only has a Canadian visa, wouldn't be allowed to leave the country with her. She opted to stay in Wuhan, and thinks Canada can do better. 

"I think the way they treat my husband, or someone similar to my husband's situation in China, is totally inhumane," she said by phone Saturday. "Inhumane, uncompassionate and unfair."

The B.C.-resident has been trapped in an apartment for the past month with her husband and limited food.

Although she has no plans to abandon her husband, she'd like to return home.

"That's why I do not choose to live just for my own sake, for humanity and compassion purpose," she said. "That's what we, Canadians, advocate in this country and in this world, to other people in other countries, including China.

"We should not be abandoning anybody that has close ties to us in our life."

Cheng said she had heard reports of confirmed coronavirus cases in her apartment building and that was making her nervous.

"I do hope the government and embassy in China can do their best to move my family and I away from Wuhan," she wrote via WeChat.

Global Affairs responds

Global Affairs Canada didn't directly respond to questions about whether the department would send a third plane.

But a spokesperson said those trapped in Hubei province can contact Canada's embassy in Beijing, call its 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa or send a message to the federal government's SOS email account.

"We remain in regular contact with Canadians in China and are continuing to provide assistance to those in need to the extent possible," the spokesperson said.

Vancouver-resident Yaqi Huang says her 63-year-old father, a permanent resident of Canada, was visiting her grandfather over the Chinese New Year when the city's roads were shut down and planes were grounded.

Not only were her father stuck inside the city, he also became separated from the 89-year-old grandfather. 

"Most people feel scared. They feel nervous. They feel trapped by the government," she said. 

While Huang initially heard only permanent residents accompanying Canadian minors were allowed to leave – a decision made by Chinese officials – she was surprised to hear stories of permanent residents without young children being allowed to leave Wuhan.

After the second plane left, the 37-year-old emailed the Canadian government again.

"To say, 'So what is the policy for letting people on the flight?'" Huang said. "I say, 'We just need to know the truth.'"

Supplied by Yaqi Huang

Earlier this month, China's deputy director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department said the country would loosen its grip and allow Chinese citizens to fly out of the city, accompanied by foreign family members. 

In an emailed response to Huang, however, Global Affairs Canada said the Chinese government maintained absolute authority over who could, and who couldn't, board the planes. 

"We advocated strongly for Canadians, [permanent residents] and their families to be eligible," the email dated Feb. 19 reads.

The emailed response says that even if the Canadian government allowed Huang's father to travel to the airport, Chinese officials would have prevented him from boarding the flight.

"We share your frustration as well. Your parents are, without a doubt, in a difficult situation right now."

While Huang wants her father to be repatriated and supports the efforts for a third plane to be sent, she's not hopeful.

"I know it's a fat chance for the Canadian government to go help, to send an airplane into Wuhan," she said. "It's really hard. We just want to be treated [fairly], like other families."

Other reasons to stay

Kristina Shramko, of Richmond, B.C., said she's been living in Wuhan for eight months.

After graduating university, the 21-year-old decided to travel. 

She visited Wuhan and, after returning to Canada briefly, had been persuaded to return to China by a romantic partner she started dating. 

When the novel coronavirus epicentre was placed in lockdown, Shramko contacted the Canadian government, hoping to leave the city.  

When she heard about the strict no pets policy on both flights, however, she decided she couldn't go.

Bethany Lindsay/CBC

She had recently adopted a cat, named Kitya.

"Even if I were to leave my cat with a friend, it's not certain when I would come back," Shramko said. "To me, it would be abandoning her."

Elaine Cheng, likewise, has concerns about leaving her cat behind in Wuhan. 

Shramko would like to come home until the outbreak is over, but feels she can't as long as the pet policy is in place. She said outside of her residence "kind of feels like the zombie apocalypse."

The Canadian citizen is currently raising money to pay for a plane ticket for her, and Kitya, when travel restrictions on the city are lifted.  

"It's really important for people to know that there are people who have decided to stay in Wuhan," she said. 

Wife is trapped

Most of Simon Zheng's family is now stuck in Wuhan, including his wife. 

The Canadian citizen's partner, who has a work permit designed for spouses, was also visiting China over the holidays. 

Zheng, a resident of Surrey, B.C., planned to come to Wuhan later in January but was held back by work. Now his wife is stranded with his in-laws and parents, Chinese citizens who live in the city. 

Supplied by Simon Zheng

The small business owner feels if he had been in Hubei province, his wife might have been able to board a plane, like some non-Canadian citizens who were permitted to leave.

"I was not there, so she wasn't able to [be] included in those kinds of groups," he said.

Zheng said he's uncertain how long the lockdown will last and fears his family's limited supplies could run out. 

But he hasn't given up hope.

The WeChat group he is a part of started with fewer than 10 families, Zheng said, and continues to grow. 

He hopes the federal government takes the pleas of families with loved ones still trapped seriously.

"I have good faith, because we're doing whatever we can," he said.