Tragedy shakes communities that helped bring murder suspect to Canada

The Vancouver church which assisted with the private refugee sponsorship of the man accused of killing 13-year-old Marrisa Shen will co-operate with police as their investigation into Ibrahim Ali continues.

St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church lead minister Dan Chambers issued a brief statement Tuesday in response to questions about Ali, a Syrian national who came to Canada with other members of his family in March 2017.

"We have nothing to say publicly as this is before the courts," Chambers wrote.

"The church will co-operate with the police, and we are keeping everyone involved in this in mind, hearts and prayers."

1st-degree murder

News of the first degree murder charge has shocked members of the tight-knit faith community which partnered with a group from Bowen Island to bring Ali and two brothers to the Lower Mainland 17 months ago.

The allegation throws a tragic light on a story that had been one of hope, community and generosity familiar to people across Canada who opened up their hearts and wallets to help refugees fleeing civil war in Syria.

Supplied by RCMP
Supplied by RCMP

Ali was arrested Friday night and made a court appearance by telephone from the Burnaby RCMP detachment the following day with the assistance of an Arabic translator.

The CBC listened to an audio recording of the proceedings, which lasted roughly 14 minutes, beginning with a judicial official reading the charge to the 28-year-old.

"Mr Ali, you're before the court today to deal with the following charge: Ibrahim Ali, on or about the 18th day of July 2017, at or near Burnaby in the province of British Columbia, did commit the first degree murder of Marrisa Shen."

Ali said he understood the charge.

He was remanded into custody until Friday morning, when he will appear in Vancouver provincial court to consult with counsel.

'Our collective priority'

Ali came to Canada through the private refugee sponsorship program, which allows groups of individuals to support refugees on their arrival with an agreement to provide care, lodging, settlement assistance and support.

Sponsorship groups agree to give material support for periods that range from 12 months to 36 months.

According to an article in the Bowen Island Undercurrent, one of Ali's brothers came to Canada as a government sponsored refugee four years before his siblings.

Residents on Bowen, a 20-minute ferry ride west of Horseshoe Bay, banded together to adopt and reunite a family torn apart by war.

They helped find housing, volunteered and raised money. They held bake sales, donated goods needed to set up house and a local trucking company lent its services for the move.

They also partnered with St. Andrew's-Wesley, which has a refugee task force as part of its commitment to justice and social action.

In March 2017, their efforts came to fruition with the arrival of Ali and two of his brothers, one of whom was accompanied by his wife and three young children.

Members of the groups which raised money gathered to greet them at Vancouver International Airport. A picture shows the smiling extended family hugging and holding flowers.

"Bowen's greatest attribute is its community. It is fundamental to our sense of well being. It's our collective priority," says a piece contributed to the Undercurrent at the time.

"Fifteen months ago, we, as an island put this collective ethos into practice by raising the means to sponsor a refugee family of seven from Syria."

'Robust checks'

The CBC contacted members of both the Bowen and St. Andrew's-Wesley groups following news of the charge against Ali, who is now a permanent resident. But all were reluctant to speak publicly.

The Facebook page that once celebrated the sponsorship project is no longer available. And church members were asked to refrain from speaking to the media.

Questions have been raised on social media about the screening process for privately sponsored refugees.

According to guidelines published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, an officer at the Canadian visa office makes the final decision on whether a candidate is eligible for resettlement.

Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press
Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press

Applicants have to undergo medical examinations, as well as extensive criminal and security checks. They may also be required to produce supplemental documentation.

Immigration lawyer Zool Suleman told the CBC's Early Edition the screening process is very thorough.

"It's very unusual for someone with a significant criminal record to enter Canada as an immigrant," he said.

"There are very robust checks in place to keep an eye on this dimension of all immigrants who come here to become permanent residents."

Suleman — like police — warned against people using an unpredictable individual tragedy to tarnish a community whose Canadian experience has generally been one of hard work and success.

RCMP said Ali had no criminal record and was unknown to them before he came to their attention as part of the investigation into Shen's death.

The break in the case followed more than a year of frustration for Shen's family and the investigators tasked with cracking the case, which is one of the most extensive ever conducted by the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team.

Police have said little about the information which led them to Ali. None of the allegations against him have been proven in court.