An Ottawa woman who fled to Canada in 2019 wants immigration authorities to get her three children out of Gaza as fast as possible as the situation in that region becomes increasingly dangerous.
Jihan Qunoo, an aid worker whose claim as a refugee from that region was approved last fall, is now waiting for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to approve her permanent residency application — one that includes her three little girls, aged six, 10, and 11.
Delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic slowed her application process, and now her lawyer says efforts to bring the children to Canada are being stymied by long wait lists, with even processes designed to expedite urgent cases more than a year behind.
Qunoo says her efforts to bring the children to Canada became more urgent last week, when she heard Israeli bombings of nearby apartment buildings while in the middle of a call with her 10-year-old.
"While I'm talking, the bombing started," said Qunoo through tears during an interview. "She starts screaming and crying and running. I said, 'It's going to be OK! It's going to be OK!"
But Qunoo said her heart was pounding — and her own terror over the girls' safety grows each day.
Wait list nearly 2 years
The escalation in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza had, as of Sunday, led to at least 188 deaths among Palestinians, including 31 children. Eight people in Israel, including a child and a soldier, have also been killed. More than 1,200 people have been wounded.
In Canada, the wait list for applications for permanent residency now stretches 23 months, according to the IRCC.
Qunoo's lawyer, Jacqueline Bonisteel, says in the past, cases involving children — particularly those who face risk — could qualify for an expedited process to get kids reunited with parents within a few months.
But Bonisteel said she's been told by IRCC officials they are only now considering fast-tracking urgent cases from December 2019 — a year before Qunoo's application was accepted.
"The urgent processing submissions that we made with her application haven't even been looked at by IRCC at this point, because her application is sitting in an envelope in a processing centre," she said.
Mental health of kids at risk
Qunoo said she and her family had been the target of threats by the Hamas government in Gaza because of her work as the senior financial officer for a non-profit funded through American agency USAid.
After she fled Gaza in 2019, the kids have had to travel the region and have had very little schooling, she said. They are currently under the care of her 70-year-old mother, who is disabled with rheumatoid arthritis.
Qunoo hasn't hugged her girls since she left, and said their mental health has been deteriorating. She said her six-year-old has been diagnosed with depression which includes inconsolable crying episodes that last hours.
Medical reports from doctors documenting the children's vulnerable mental state are included in her submission asking for an expedited process to bring them to Canada.
Canadian immigration officials have the ability to issue temporary visas pending approval when cases involve children facing higher risks — particularly for kids who are not in the care of a parent.
The guidelines state "officers must be aware of the risks to which these children may be exposed if there are delays in finalizing the application in Canada for permanent residence."
But the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) director Janet Dench says the provision is rarely used.
The CCR is asking the federal government to set a six-month limit on the wait to reunite separated children with a parent in Canada.
"What is our responsibility as a country towards these children?" - Janet Dench
It's also been trying to fast-track cases for 35 children, but delays can still last years.
Dench said for children, in particular, the wait can cause irreparable emotional and physical harm, set them back in their education, and impair their ability to succeed as a contributing member of a Canadian family.
In some cases, Dench said, children have died waiting.
"What is our responsibility as a country towards these children?" Dench said. "And can we allow ourselves to let them continue to be in these situations of risk?"
A spokesperson for the IRCC said the agency required more time to examine Qunoo's application, but did not directly address any of CBC's questions about the delays involving permanent residency applications and separated children.
"Where there are compelling humanitarian circumstances, IRCC staff abroad will consider options to facilitate early entry consistent with existing policy guidance," the statement said.
Canadian missions responsible for service to residents of the Gaza Strip "are working under difficult conditions to respond to inquiries from clients affected by the current conflict," it added.
As for Qunoo, it may be until late 2022 before she sees her girls again.
"I can't stay for another two years waiting. There is no way," Qunoo said. "I came here to give them a better life and a better future and to save their lives. But I feel like if I decided to stay another two years, I will lose everything."