Families across Canada are applying for a limited number of special visas they hope will rescue their loved ones from the Israel-Hamas war.
Hanadi Alashi and her family in Ottawa took the day off work so they could start refreshing the government website at 8:30 Tuesday morning, waiting for the application process to open.
Canada launched its new special extended family visa program for people in Gaza on Tuesday. Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced the program in December after months of pleading from Palestinian Canadians for the federal government to offer refuge to their loved ones.
Alashi started preparing her family’s documents months before the program was even announced so she would be ready when the opportunity came.
With only 1,000 visas available and her family’s lives on the line, she said she felt the pressure to move quickly.
“It’s a matter of how fast you will be, so it was very stressful,” Alashi said in an interview Tuesday, adding she’s already so anxious for her family that she wept as she hurried to file the paperwork.
The application process has multiple stages. First, families need to provide the federal government with basic information about people they want to bring to Canada and their relationship to each other, as well as the Canadian family member’s government documents.
If the government deems the information complete, they will get a unique code to apply for the visa. The federal Immigration Department warned families to get their paperwork in quickly when they get their unique code because it is accepting a limited number of applications.
“If all available spaces are filled before you submit your complete application, your application will not be processed under this temporary public policy,” the department said Tuesday in a message on its website.
Now all that Alashi can do is be ready to jump as she waits for the moment she receives the code.
“Every minute we have is stress over the lives of our families,” she said. “I can’t describe to you the anxiety that I have.”
The program will allow people who get visas to take refuge in Canada for three years, if their families are willing to financially support them during that time.
Canada’s existing visa program is available only to immediate family members of Canadians, including spouses and children. The expansion will allow a limited number of parents, grandparents, adult children, grandchildren and siblings of Canadians and Canadian permanent residents, as well as their immediate family members.
Even if her family members are accepted, Alashi says she’ll have to live with the guilt of knowing other families weren’t so lucky.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims has criticized the cap of 1,000 applicants, and said it has already been in contact with more than a thousand people trying to get their families out of Gaza.
Marilyn Kasken, who is also Palestinian, echoed those frustrations during an interview in St. John’s NL. She noted that Ottawa has welcomed more than 210,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russian attacks on their country since 2022.
“It says that Palestinian people’s lives don’t matter,” she said Monday evening.
The Immigration Department has defended the cap, and said the number of visas reflect the volatility of the situation on the ground and the challenges Canada and other countries have had moving people out of Gaza through the tightly-controlled border with Egypt.
Miller said in a statement Tuesday the situation in Gaza is “challenging and volatile.”
He said the government’s “new measures provide a humanitarian pathway to safety and recognize the importance of keeping families together given the ongoing crisis. We will continue to monitor the situation in Gaza very closely as it evolves and adapt our response accordingly.”
Kasken, along with her sister, Miran, say the fates of their younger brothers are now in the hands of the Canadian government.
Their brothers, 20-year-old Talal and 21-year-old Fahed, are sharing a tent in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border. They have no water, no food, no bathrooms, no electricity and no internet.
They were living in Gaza City when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people. Almost immediately, Israel responded with near constant bombardment throughout the Palestinian territory. Israel also restricted access to supplies in a move that has left civilians without adequate food and water.
More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed — about two-thirds of them women and children — and more than 58,000 wounded since the war began, according to local health authorities in the Hamas-controlled territory.
The brothers hid from bombs in basements and walked past demolished buildings and dead bodies on their journey to Rafah, said Kasken.
Every day her brothers spend in the Gaza Strip diminishes their chances of survival, she said.
“I don’t want to lose another family member.”
The women say since the war broke out, their uncle was killed and their grandparents had to stay behind in Gaza City because they were too old and frail to evacuate. They have not heard from their mother in a week, and they don’t know if she’s still alive.
To speak with her brothers and confirm they are still alive, Kasken said she must contact a friend in the West Bank who can make a local call to try to reach them — if they have been able to find electricity to charge their phones.
The Kasken sisters have hired an immigration lawyer with the help of an online fundraising campaign. Marilyn said the lawyer would spend Tuesday morning refreshing the online application for the portal with paperwork ready, waiting for the first opportunity to submit it.
Those who manage to get a visa and escape Gaza will be provided with funds for a two-night hotel stay while they undergo screening and fingerprinting.
Once in Canada, they will be eligible to apply for a free work or study permit and have access to settlement services and health coverage from the federal government for 90 days.
The Kasken sisters met Monday with a staff member for Seamus O’Regan, the Liberal MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, but said the meeting did not leave them with much hope.
“I want to wake up from this nightmare,” Marilyn Kasken said.
The sisters arrived in St. John’s in October through the federal human right defenders program. It resettles people who fight for fundamental freedoms but face risks in their home countries.
“I don’t really feel like I have a new beginning in Canada, because I can’t feel any good things while I am in constant fear of losing my friends and family and brothers,” Kasken said.
Laura Osman, Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2023.