Skip to content

Blocked by Trump, but welcomed by Canada, this doctor is now stuck in limbo

It was a story hailed by many as a moment of Canada’s compassion for its larger neighbour.

Four years ago, Canada opened its doors to Dr. Khaled Almilaji, who had been barred from entering the United States under then-President Donald Trump’s executive order to restrict entry travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries – a measure widely referred to as “Muslim travel”. ban” by critics.

But the story’s epilogue has largely gone under the radar. In fact, it’s probably still waiting for a final chapter.

The Syrian otolaryngologist (head and neck surgeon) was a postgraduate student in America. In January 2017, however, he found himself stranded in Turkey, following an aid mission at the border of his native country. He was barred from returning to the United States, where his pregnant wife was awaiting his return, following the Trump administration’s measure.

It is the same White House policy that prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to respond with a tweet that created a lot of buzz at the time and in the following months: “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, whatever your faith. Diversity is our strength” as well as the hashtag “#WelcomeToCanada”.

Almilaji’s supporters in academia and humanitarian aid circles in the United States and Canada pulled all the strings they could and got the University of Toronto to let him continue his studies in computer science from the health north of the border.

In June of the same year, Ottawa issued him a student visa in Turkey and allowed him to reunite with his wife Jehan Mouhsen and start a new life in Canada. Her story made headlines around the world.

Despite Almilaji’s many accomplishments since arriving here, including a medal from the Governor General of Canada for his international aid work, permanent residency in Canada is still beyond his reach.

It has been almost three years since he was granted asylum and applied for permanent residence with his wife, with whom he has two Canadian-born children, Daria and Omar.

This despite the fact that the older sister and her family he helped bring to Canada in September 2019 under a private refugee sponsorship will be on track to apply for citizenship later this year.

“I am happy that my sister and her children are safe in Canada. They couldn’t go back to Syria because of the war and because of my humanitarian work,” says Almilaji, who after graduating from the University of Toronto worked at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health and is now project manager at the University. Health Network.

“I don’t feel bitter. I just feel bad about my (lack of) status and try to think about all the great things that have happened to me and the Canadians who have helped me and become my friends. I am grateful to the Canadian government and I am ashamed to press charges.

Almilaji, 40, arrived in Canada in June 2017 on a student visa and was granted asylum in February 2019; he applied for permanent residency a month later. Mouhsen, 31, a doctor from Montenegro, came here on a visitor’s visa because she is not a refugee, although she is her dependent.

The visitor visa does not allow Mouhsen to study or work in Canada, let alone travel outside the country, not even to visit his pediatrician father in the Balkans, who contracted COVID-19 l last year and suffered a health scare in intensive care.

“I haven’t been able to do anything with my career for the past four, five years. I can’t even apply for medical residency in a hospital because I’m not a permanent resident,” Mouhsen said. It’s really hard not being able to practice (medicine) and help during the COVID pandemic.”

Processing times for permanent residence applications can vary, but it generally takes longer for a protected person to obtain permanent status than economic and family class immigrants. It is not unusual for accepted refugees to wait a year or two before being granted permanent residence.

In Canada, Almilaji continued his humanitarian aid work with the Canadian International Medical Relief Organization, a group he co-founded to provide medical support and treatment to displaced Syrians sneaking across the border.

Along with two Canadians working on the ground in Turkey, Almilaji established the aid group in 2012. During a polio outbreak in a rebel-held area of ​​Syria in 2013, he led a vaccination campaign in the conflict zone, smuggling medical supplies through government checkpoints. and vaccinate 1.3 million children.

This work earned him and his two co-founders – Dr. Jay Dahman and paramedic Mark Cameron – a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada in April 2017 while stranded in Turkey.

Almilaji said the immigration department has not updated his application on its online portal since October 2020.

In response to an investigation by The Star, immigration department spokeswoman Julie Lafortune confirmed the couple applied for permanent residency in March 2019 and the application is still pending.

“Sir. Almilaji’s case has reached the security screening stage. Security screening is carried out by partner agencies and is an integral part of the application process. The department is unable to provide a timeline as to the when results can be expected,” she said in an email.

Almilaji said he was vetted and cleared by US and Canadian authorities in processing his student visas in both countries and then in his asylum application in Canada.

“You should have passed the national security clearance to go to the United States and come to Canada,” said Almilaji, who actually received a new US student visa after Trump’s ban was challenged in front of him. US courts, but had already relocated to Toronto.

His sister, Yasmin Almilaji, said she could not have come to the country without her brother’s help.

“I feel really bad for Khaled. He is a very caring person. He likes to help everyone who needs it. It’s sad to see him suffer like this,” said the mother of six, who arrived here in 2019. as permanent residents under private sponsorship of refugees.

“Everything is now suspended for them. It is as if the Canadian government had forgotten them.

Suanne Kelman, who has known the couple since their arrival, said she understands the pandemic has created backlogs and disrupted immigration processing, but Almilaji and Mouhsen have a clear case and the delay is unacceptable.

“He’s a guy who was slapped by the United States. We welcomed him and his wife. We celebrated them. And now we’ve left them in limbo,” said Kelman, a professor of retired journalist from Ryerson University, whose neuroradiologist husband Allan Fox was among those who helped bring Almilaji to the U of T.

“They have a lot to bring to Canada and they are the ones we choose to ignore.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based journalist who covers immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung