Jordan: One of the main reasons that we take in refugees as children from some of the most dangerous places in the world is to one day make them Canadians. Part of that process, a large part of that process is done when the child is still young. It’s applying for citizenship, and usually it’s the family who does this on behalf of the kid. But some kids slipped through cracks, and some come from broken homes, and some end up in our child welfare system, and as sad as that is, that would still be business as usual if child services serving as the kid’s guardian was required to apply for citizenship on their behalf. But they are not, and in many cases we’re finding out now they never did, which means that some of these kids who have already left their home country, feared for their lives, suffered serious family problems, fallen into the child service’s system, and then often later into the criminal justice system, are now facing deportation. And that’s how a 34 year old man who should have become a Canadian citizen sometime not long after he turned 10 is now hoping for a last minute reprieve, and the strangest thing about his story isn’t that we ended up here, that we already were here last year and the problem was solved we just didn’t implement the fix.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Robyn Maynard is an activist and an educator and an author of Policing Black Lives. Robin, thanks for joining us.
Robin: Thank you for having me.
Jordan: So why don’t you just begin by telling me a little bit about this man, who is Abdilahi Elmi?
Robin: So Abdilahi Elmi is a former child refugee, still a Somali refugee who arrived in Canada in 1994 at the age of 10 after living in a refugee camp with his grandmother for several years. A few years later, he was removed from his family home and placed in state care and, like many, many, many youth, particularly black youth who went up in state care, ended up living on the streets and involved in the criminal justice system, in part due to substance use issues that he’s been working to manage recently. But unfortunately, because of his involvement with the criminal justice system and also the child welfare agencies under which he was placed in their care, actually failed to apply for his citizenship. So rather than him having become a Canadian citizen, as most refugees do, instead, he has been actually living as a refugee for more than 20 years. So what that means is that you know, although many youth and care end up involved with the Criminal Justice System, Elmi rather than just, for example, dealing with the criminal justice system is actually now facing deportation in which many communities are now advocating to fight because that deportation is now set for August 26th which is coming up very quickly.
Jordan: How does that happen? It seems like such a confluence of events. So he’s now in his mid thirties, and he’s been a refugee here since he was 10. At what point would he first have the opportunity to become a Canadian citizen?
Robin: Now what should have happened was that, you know, while he was under the care of the state, it was; we really need to understand that as having been their responsibility to have applied for his citizenship, what that has been defined as immigration lawyer at Benjamin Pyramid description, is actually thinking about that as the right to have rights, you know, in the country that you live. But because that did not happen when he was in state care and foster care’s in Ontario, that meant that instead of becoming a citizen, he remained a refugee, even as he was under their care. So this is something that really happens at, you know, as really just a kind of what we need to understand a state neglect as the oversight of what it really means to care for youth. Now, this is not the first time that this has happened. If you like, I can tell you about a really similar case that happened last year that actually ended up with significant changes to the child welfare system in Nova Scotia.
Jordan: We absolutely will get to that, because I do want to ask you about that but first I just kind of I want to understand what the lay of the land is. Are there regulations or ground rules for children or young adults who are refugees and end up in state care? Are they supposed to be handling their immigration, and they just didn’t or they’re just nothing at all?
Robin: Well, the way that it was explained, for example, in another province that finally recently changed was just that there was a total absence of this legislation. So you have; You’ve seen some sort of small changes in that, particularly in the Peel child aid services in Ontario, but other than that, it really just has been something that has largely been left unseen.
Jordan: Have you met him?
Robin: I haven’t met him personally, but I’ve been speaking with different members of his family and his legal team across the last few weeks.
Jordan: And what are those conversations like with his family and his legal team like, what are they trying to do right now?
Robin: Well, people are extremely worried because, of course, Abdilahi Elmi has never been, you know, he hasn’t been to Somalia since he was a child. He doesn’t speak the language, he didn’t know his father who was there, so he feels very much that you know, if he is to be deported to Somalia that he’s calling; He’s saying that this really seems like a death sentence because he has absolutely no connections, no ability to find work. We also have to remember that Kismayo, Somalia, the place that he is to be removed to is actually, the place that just, for example, saw Somalian Canadian journalist and 25 other people killed only a few weeks ago right? So this is something that he’s feeling; Him and all of his family are just feeling absolutely terrified of this prospect of him having to be removed to this place that he hardly knows and really see it, as you know, Canada’s responsibility for having taken him in as a child and really having failed him, um, and now sending him back instead of helping him to rehabilitate his life, which is something that he’s really trying to do.
Jordan: So tell me how he ended up in custody and facing deportation then is this involved with his encounters in the criminal justice system? Or did he just run out of time?
Robin: Sure. So what happened was that, um, of course you’d have different involvements with the criminal justice system because he spent years in a refugee camp, and after that in state care, he did suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, which of course, was undiagnosed and untreated by child welfare services, so ended up actually leaving care and being homeless for a significant part of his teenage years, which is when his involvement with the criminal justice system began and he didn’t have connections to family and to the community and was really very isolated, dealing with addictions very much on his own. But in recent years, he had actually been in contact with different Somali community organizations like the African Canadian Civil Engagement Council and others who had been lending him support. He had actually been enrolled in a rehabilitation program and had been making enormous progress and making all kinds of new contact family members and really turning his life around in many ways. But unfortunately what happened is that he had a small relapse which led to him actually being, you know, because that had been against one of the conditions of the rehabilitation center that ended up calling the police wounded from CBSA, and that’s how we ended up actually in detention this time. So it’s all really a series of unfortunate instances in terms of somebody that was really trying to make those family connections to trying to really find a way to deal with that trauma and to live safely and to live well.
Jordan: How would this case be different if the child welfare services had actually applied for immigration? Is he at that point guaranteed to get it? Could he still end up in this precarious situation, or like, how different would things look here?
Robin: Well, it’s hard to go there, you know there are many different, of course, things that could happen without getting into the legalities of it, of course, you know, youth involved in the criminal justice system, it can still be difficult, it can still impact their ability to access citizenship as well, but had he, you know, when he first arrived as a refugee, you know, been treated in a way that wasn’t neglect-able, and had they actually applied for his new citizenship of course, there’s this possibility that he would have just been seen as any other Canadian youth getting in trouble with the law, which is something that happens a lot, you know, to almost 50% of youth that go the child welfare system. So, as opposed to, you know, this idea being kids and serving, you know, different youth sentences and things like that and then being able to move on with their lives instead; In Emi’s situation, he’s actually gonna be deported away from anyone and everything he’s ever really known to a place that he that he doesn’t know where he feels he’s very much in danger. A lot of advocates have been calling this phenomenon more broadly, not just in Elmi’s case double punishment, right? Where not only do you serve a sentence and, you know, quote on quote, do your time but after that, you’re punished another time by being removed from the country.
Jordan: Right? And I mean, this isn’t uh…. this isn’t a unique phenomenon you were going to tell me about some past cases, why don’t you do that?
Robin: Sure, absolutely. So something that’s really remarkable I think that really bods, I think for the importance of why this deportation needs to be overturned is there was just a very high profile case that was very similar of that of Abdul Abhdi, which was of course you know, in the media, all of last year, he was another former child refugee from Somalia who had been placed in care and didn’t receive a citizenship as a ward of the state and who was also facing deportation. His sister Fatima was very much part of supporting this battle. She actually said, and I quote when we fought and won for my brother, I believed we had made a change. It’s painful to be back here a year later, fighting the same neglect for another child failed by the child welfare system in Canada because what actually happened was not only was; The judge ruled that the authorities hadn’t considered the unique fax in his case, including the fact that he’d been a ward of the state who didn’t apply for citizenship, so that ended up being overturned and it ended up being a victory in many ways. In Nova Scotia, for example, social workers now are supposed to apply for Canadian citizenship on the children’s behalf and t is seen as part of their plan of care, right, so this is a major transition in that province, but what we feel; What we’ve seen is that it hasn’t applied in a broader level to kids that had gone to care across the country. So we’re still seeing that even though the case is, you know, similar in so many ways, we see that in Elmi’s case, you know he’s still facing deportation, even though he also was a ward of the state who didn’t receive a citizenship.
Jordan: Well, that was gonna be my next question is, isn’t there precedents set here that should apply in this case? Like how is that argument being made?
Robin: Well, this is the argument that we’re trying to make right now, right? Like, for example, there’s a press conference in Toronto featuring Audrey Macklin, who’s the chair and human rights law and director of the Center for Criminology and Pyscho-legal studies at the University of Toronto, there are legal experts doing a press conference in Edmonton at the same time and there’s another action in Halifax that’s saying exactly that. If we’ve come to sort of understand as a public that of course you know children are wards of the state; Who were wards of the state should not be deported, then how is this still happening? Particularly given the president that we can look to in Nova Scotia, right, that we could now understand this as an injustice and that’s why we’re calling on the public security minister, Ralph Goodale, both to stop the deportation, but also to actually work with the provinces to make sure that other children who had been in care are not able to face deportation to make sure that you know they’re able to receive status.
Jordan: Has Goodale commented publicly on sort of the larger issue here? Does the government acknowledge that something happened in the past that caused these problems?
Robin: From what I understand, I believe that when Abdul Abhdi’s case, when his deportation was canceled, Ralph Goodall just wrote a very short tweet that the deportation had been saved and understand.
Jordan: Without acknowledging the larger issues at play.
Robin: Mmm hmm. And in Nova Scotia, even the CBC actually did an access to information where it showed that it was, you know, it was clear that it was related to Abdul Abdi’s case, but they didn’t name it specifically but that really was why they sort of quietly but quickly introduced a policy change that actually required the state to both note a child citizenship and also to, you know, continue to determine whether or not it was important to apply for them for citizenship.
Jordan: So what actually happens between now and the 26th when Elmi’s due to be deported? Does he have a hearing? Are there any decisions left to be made or is this all about protests and intervention now?
Robin: Well, we’re hoping that the high level of visibility and families support, and really cross country support for Elmi will cause the public safety minister Ralph Goodale to overturn or just stop rather this deportation because, as it is, date is set for August 26. Of course, the legal team has applied for a judicial review, which were the deportation to be stayed, that would be something that they could then examine, but at this time he’s slated for deportation, which is on the 26th. So that’s why it’s so important you know, there’s a petition that is circulating on change dot org and there are actions happening across the country because it really is, you know, this urgent moment that gives us very little time to overturn this deportation. And of course, if we were successfully able to stop this one in the way that we did Abdul Abhdi’s, then again, that would be really important for what Canada was saying in terms of our respect for child refugees who are the wards of the state’s ability to have race in this country.
Jordan: One of my last couple of questions, I wanted to ask you about the role that stereotypes can play in public opinion about these kind of cases because, you know, racism is a factor but also just, uh, kids who grow up in child welfare services and have encounters with the criminal justice system. To people who are looking at the bare broad description of the case that says something to them.
Robin: Um, I mean, I think that there’s a lot of prejudice in terms of the ways that people who have encountered the criminal justice system are viewed, and a lot of that comes of course, you know, from long standing associations of crime with black and with indigenous communities, this idea that, you know crime is associated with particular groups that are not respected in our society, even though we actually see you know similar rates of what’s called crime across society, we see that people that are deemed to be criminal are disproportionately black, pretty disproportionately indigenous and that’s because of again histories of racism in this country and, of course, of the criminalization of people with mental health issues, particularly as that intersects with issues like anti blackness so I think that what that often creates is an inability to empathize and to actually understand that you know somebody that has grown up in a refugee camp, he’s you know, when he speaks to advocates he talks about the fact that he still sees you know, those dead bodies that he saw in his time in Somalia in the refugee camp, right? That somebody who’s been traumatized, who then was, you know, the state’s responsibility to really treat and to raise right? Who has then had this experience, who, of course, is going to have difficulty managing that, using things like substances and, of course, just like coming into contact with a lot for you know, what are fairly for the large part small, you know, not very serious offenses, right? So I think that there’s one understanding of what are considered to be Canadian kids where we say, like kids will be kids they’ll make certain kind of encounters and then turn their lives around, but we don’t have the scene way of understanding that when it comes to people that are black, people that are refugees, immigrants not seem to be, not understood to be Canadian.
Jordan: So what’s the solution to this, and I mean is it as simple as just requiring child services to apply for immigration on behalf of any refugees that enter their care, or am I missing something?
Robin: That is a really important part of it, and also, you know, if we look at situations like Elmi’s, like Abdul Abdi’s, these are now adults right who had come through the systems of neglect every step of the way, so what we also really need to see is making sure that retroactively, those who had been wards of the state and who still do not have their citizenship are able to have access to that citizenship I think that’s something that’s really crucial.
Jordan: And finally, what can people do right now with a week to go, you mentioned a petition, what other kind of action are you looking for?
Robin: I think that people can absolutely sign the petition. People if they’re in Halifax, for example, can attend the demonstration, but people are able to make telephone calls to Ralph Goodale, and people are able to make telephone calls to their MPs. We had a call out for people to do that exact thing last week and we know that it really was working, that they were receiving a lot of calls, anything that people could do really, just to bring this into the public’s attention. There’s so many people that are doing the work, whether it comes to like L. Jones in Halifax or Fatuma Abdhi Abdul Abdi’s sister, who’s been really on the front lines of bringing this to the front. Doonean from the African Canadian Civil Engagement Council and you know those who started the petition I just think that it’s really important to look at; And also of course, of this group of Somalian mothers who’ve been supporting Elmi and other people who had experienced situations like his, that there is so much mobilization from black community, from advocates all across the country that really shows that you know Elmi deserves to stay here, that the community is really standing up across the country and saying that this deportation is wrongful, that this person deserves to be in Canada that Elmi deserves to stay here.
Jordan: Thanks, Robin.
Robin: Thank you.
Jordan: Robyn Maynard is an activist, a researcher and educator and an author. That was The Big Story, and you can find more at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can talk to us at @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter. You can find us on Facebook or on Instagram @frequencypods. You could subscribe to our podcast or really any podcast, but we’d prefer you choose ours, wherever you get them on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify, you pick. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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