Nova Scotia family left in limbo as red tape strands dad in Egypt
Karim Kafafy stuck in a Cairo hotel as he tries to renew his permanent residency card to get home
Since coming to Canada more than five years ago, Olesya Shyvikova and her husband Karim Kafafy have worked to give their family everything they could. But for the last month, the only thing any of them want is out of reach.
Kafafy has been stranded in Egypt for more than a month after a job as safety advisory for an oil company wrapped up, because his permanent residency card has expired, preventing his return to Canada.
For the last four years he's worked as a safety advisory for an oil rig in Saudi Arabia, doing 28-day rotations. When his permanent residency card ran out and he could not return to Canada, he went to his home country of Egypt. He's due to return to Saudi Arabia on Sunday for another rotation. His wife says he knew leaving for work without the card could cause a problem, but the family couldn't risk his losing the job.
So he took the risk so that he could accept the two-month contract in Egypt.
These headaches the family is undergoing are not because the family left things to the last minute.
In early March, Kafafy's renewal documents, along with a letter from his employer and copies of his plane tickets to and from the job, were sent to the intake centre in Cape Breton. But despite the application being designated as urgent and repeated calls to check in, the family was unable to get any information.
A government of Canada website says it currently takes 111 days on average to process such a request. As of July 1, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship was working on applications received on March 15.
It states that permanent residents must have a valid permanent resident card to return to Canada. If someone wants to leave Canada over a job opportunity, a health matter, or a death, they can qualify for an urgent processing.
"Even if you qualify, we can't guarantee we'll process your application urgently or that you'll get your PR card on time," the website states.
"We plead and begged and sent emails and sent emails to the minister of immigration when it was still early [in the process]," said Shyvikova, who several years ago interned at CBC. "And then his card expired."
Despite repeated attempts to reach someone on the phone, Shyvikova said the family has never actually talked to a person about her husband's case and, with only one exception, they've received nothing but form emails.
The uncertainty of when her husband will be back is taking a toll on the family, said Shyvikov.
They came to Canada and settled in Bedford with their son, Ali, during the Arab Spring. They were separated for a period of time and the new separation is awakening memories for Ali, said Shyvikova.
"This was a disaster for him and we told him we were going to Canada to never be separated. And now again, he's 11 and this triggers memories."
Shyvikova said the family, which 10 months ago welcomed baby Yaseem, is the victim of bureaucracy and an outdated system unable to handle demand or deal with people on a personal level. She worries about her boys.
"They're used to having dad and they have a very strong bond with their dad … and they should have an answer [to] when is daddy coming home."
Kafafy is currently staying in a hotel in Cairo, with little in the way of belongings. He communicates with his family via video and online chat services and has tried to seek help through the Canadian embassy there, so far to no avail.
The family's situation is all too common, according to Halifax immigration lawyer Lee Cohen, with whom Shyvikova has consulted.
"It's very, very common for people to be held what I call hostage to the permanent resident card renewal process," he said.
Cohen said processing times are often too long to accommodate legitimate situations where a person needs to travel for either professional or personal reasons.
"It causes a great deal of stress and strife for family members."
The system appears to be designed to prevent clients from actually speaking with people processing paperwork, said Cohen. Further challenges include a website that isn't detailed enough and a lack of adequate resources, he said.
Speaking at an appearance in Halifax earlier this week, Canada's Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship minister said he was surprised to hear of the frustrations with the Cape Breton centre.
"There are always exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking we've improved client service," said Ahmed Hussen. "It's been a priority for our government."
Hussen encouraged people facing problems to contact their local MP.
'You are just a file number'
Shyvikova tried that, only to encounter further frustrations.
The family has become involved in their community, bought a house and started a business, said Shyvikova, who along with Ali became a Canadian citizen in January. But right now it feels as though none of that has been good enough for the government, she said, adding that everyone from the minister's office on down needs to find a way to create a more personalized system.
"You feel you are just a file number," she said. "There are kids at stake, there are financial problems that this might cause and they don't realize it at all."