Some Canadians who escaped the Gaza Strip say Canada’s definition of family means they had to make the heartbreaking choice to leave loved ones behind.
Canadian citizen Amro Abumiddain lay awake in his hotel room in Egypt this weekend, finally safe after a month of constant bombardment. Still, he couldn’t sleep, his mind seized with the fact he had to leave his father behind.
“If it weren’t for my kids I wouldn’t have left my dad, even if I had to die,” Abumiddain said by text message from his hotel room in Cairo. Sometimes, he said, he thinks it was easier to be together in danger than to worry about him from afar.
The Gaza Strip has been the target of a relentless bombing campaign in the days since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a terrorist attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and triggered a fearsome Israeli response. Israel said more than 200 people remain hostages of Hamas since the attack.
Abumiddain’s wife and children fled to a nearby school for shelter in the first few days of the bombardment and eventually made it to a refugee camp near the Rafah border crossing. He stayed with his father on the family farm, just a kilometre from the Israeli border.
The farm house has been blown apart, and the family ran out of food to feed the livestock. He described sitting under a big tree outside of the house with his father and uncle, watching F16s fly overhead.
Canada was working to organize his evacuation from Gaza, but the United States was able to get him and his family out more quickly because his twin boys are American citizens.
He didn’t leave his father until the day his family’s names appeared on the list of evacuees allowed to cross into Egypt the following day. It was the first time he had seen his 78-year-old father cry.
“He told me don’t worry, I will see you again,” he said. But Abumiddain has no idea how to get his father out of Gaza.
Canada has spent weeks trying to facilitate the evacuation of roughly 550 Canadians, permanent residents and family members in Gaza who want to escape through the tightly controlled Rafah border. The exits of foreign nationals from the region have been negotiated between Egypt and Israel with Qatar acting as mediator.
So far, 356 people with links to Canada have made it across the border to safety in Egypt, Global Affairs Canada reported Monday.
Unlike America, which, according to the UN refugee agency, typically includes parents in the legal definition of “immediate family,” Canada’s definition in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act extends only to spouses and common-law partners, dependent children and grandchildren.
That means, for now, Canada has not offered to add parents, in-laws and siblings to its list of potential evacuees.
In any event, Abumiddain’s father isn’t willing to leave without his brother. The pair have long worked the farm together, and Abumiddain’s uncle would otherwise be alone.
If Canada widened its legal definition of immediate family, it would allow the family to stay together and remain united, said Abumiddain, who hasn’t been able to contact his dad since he left Gaza.
The Canadian Council for Refugees has advocated for a broader definition to allow people who escape to find refuge with their loved ones in Canada.
“You may have those who are trying to exit whose immediate support network may be a more distant relative,” said co-executive director Gauri Sreenivasan.
It’s important that the government recognize the unique composition of modern families and their support systems, and avoid narrow definitions, Sreenivasan said.
“I think this is a time for us to to be generous and identify what are the opportunities to get people who are trying to leave to safety, including their families.”
More than 11,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths. About 2,700 people have been reported missing.
During Canada’s evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, for example, the government expanded the definition to include “de facto dependants,” which included people who depend on a specific family for emotional or financial reasons and people who live with the family as a member of the household.
In Halifax, Abumiddain’s cousin Maha Abdelwahed has been desperately trying to get her parents out of Gaza as well. When she and her husband reached out to the Global Affairs Canada emergency line, they were told parents of adult Canadians were not eligible.
Days later, they saw that people they knew were able to get their non-Canadian family members out of Gaza, even though they shouldn’t have qualified.
“They’re in the same boat … and yet they were able to get out,” Maha’s husband, Khalid Abdelwahed, said in an interview Monday.
Global Affairs Canada did not reply to repeated requests last week seeking clarity on which family members would qualify under Canada’s rules.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Immigration Minister Marc Miller did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Expanding the definition of families to include parents and other extended family members “could mean the difference between life and death for them,” Abdelwahed said.
“It would mean the world to us,” and it would mean his wife would be able to sleep at night, he added.
Israa, a recent Canadian evacuee from Gaza, is haunted for the same reason. The London, Ont. woman and her two children, aged nine and seven, were wrapping up a visit with her family in Gaza when Hamas launched an attack on Israeli citizens.
“Because I had my kids with me, I was worried about them more than myself,” Israa said of those first terrifying days.
The Canadian Press has agreed to use only her first name out of concern for her family in Gaza.
She fled to the southern part of the territory only to find there was no running water or electricity before returning to Gaza City and holing up in a school with her children for 10 days.
Desperate for help, Israa reached out to the United States embassy because her daughter is American. They were able to get her and both of her children on the list to leave on the second day of evacuations from the besieged territory, making her one of the first Canadians to escape.
She hoped the generosity of the Americans would extend to her parents and siblings as well, but was told they couldn’t help because she is Canadian.
When she made it to Egypt and her kids were safe, she called the Canadian Embassy to try to help the rest of her family.
“I told them I need my family with me, my mom and my dad, my brothers and sisters. My mom and dad, they are old and they are sick,” she said.
“They said ‘I’m sorry. Nothing we can do.'”
— With files from Fakiha Baig and The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2023.