For thousands of refugees, the chance to come to Canada is a dream, but for far too many who are already here, their situation has grown dangerously desperate.
A Palestinian refugee stabbed herself in the stomach, just below the ribcage, last week while in a meeting with a federal government official with Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
Sitting on a park bench, a day after being released from hospital, Aziz Abusirdana tells CTV News, “I put a knife in my body because no one cares. Seriously no one cares.”
For seven months she’s been stuck, living in a refugee hotel west of Toronto. She says she never intended to kill herself, but decided to stab herself in the stomach to try and get the attention of the federal government and the settlement agency which, for more than half a year, hasn’t been able to assist her in finding what she believes would be a safe place to live.
Abusirdana believes the government has failed her. Exasperated, she says, “If you [the government] know that there’s no suitable place for me to stay why did you accept me to come [to Canada]?”
Raised in Gaza, Abusirdana’s young life has been filled with trauma. She claims her own father and grandfather back home in Palestine have threatened to find her and kill her. The 22-year-old left home and was on a scholarship from an Algerian university, but says she had to drop out and flee to Canada amid fears that her own family was tracking her down with plans to murder her.
Publicly, she doesn’t share what led to her situation with her father and grandfather, but the incident has left her traumatized, alone and isolated in a new country, and unable to trust anyone. Her request for housing is straight forward: her own bedroom and bathroom with a lock on each door. And she can’t live in a shared space with men.
She says she’s been shown nothing but inadequate apartments. Sometimes she’s been shown the same place twice. The $1,100 a month she receives from the government will run out in five months, and having enough money to feed herself and put a roof over her head in Toronto’s red hot rental market, has limited her options.
Abusirdana says she even travelled to Ottawa to try and speak to Immigration Canada, but the trip resolved nothing.
“I was suffering in Palestine, I was suffering in Algeria, I didn’t think I’d suffer here in Canada,” admits the distraught woman.
CTV News asked Abusirdana if she was offered a therapist or psychologist to sit down with after arriving in Canada. She says no, the only option presented was to pay $150 per session out of pocket, which she couldn’t afford.
Abusirdana is the second refugee in a month to harm themselves at the same refugee hotel. In mid-October, a father from Afghanistan decided to sew his lips together in protest.
He and his family of eight had been living in the hotel waiting for the government to deliver their paperwork for more than 12 months. A couple of weeks after he took the drastic step the federal government signed, sealed and sent his family their papers.
One advocate is concerned that more and more refugees are going to harm themselves in a desperate cry for help.
“This is what I’m worried about,” says refugee advocate Mona Elshayal. “It’s taking too long for people to find housing, and they really don’t have any hope. After months in a hotel with nowhere to go their mental health is rapidly deteriorating.”
These disturbing developments come as Canada’s Minister of Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada Sean Fraser announced his government’s plan to plow forward with its “ambitious” target to bring 40,000 refugees to Canada from Afghanistan. So far they’ve brought over more than half of their targeted goal.
At a press conference this week in Toronto Fraser proclaimed, “We’re going to continue to lead the world when it comes to refugee resettlement. In each of the past three years Canada has resettled more refugees than anywhere else in the world. In fact, Canada was responsible for more than one-third of the total number of refugees that were resettled in each of the last two years.”
But many newcomers who’ve spoken with CTV News over the last several months say that you can’t call it resettlement when you’ve left a large number of refugees stranded at a hotel on Canadian soil for six to 12 months, with no home and no papers, unable to work, go to school, or pay taxes.
As an advocate, Elshayal says she supports Canada’s efforts to bring refugees here, but not if they’re being “re-traumatized” by a “broken system.”
Elshayal believes “the program needs to be re-evaluated, they should consider taking the families to smaller communities where they would have the support and ability to live on the financial assistance that’s given to them. We need to provide mental health support because every single one of them needs its.”
The long-time advocate also points the blame at the agencies hired by the federal government to resettle newcomers.
An organization called Polycultural has been put in charge at Abuirdana’s hotel west of Toronto. Multiple CTV News investigations have uncovered several reported issues with how Polycultural has been handling the refugees in its care at this location.
The resettlement agency’s executive director, Marwan Ismail, was also at the meeting with a manager from the IRCC when Abuirdana stabbed herself in the abdomen last week.
In an email, Ismail told CTV News, “We were shocked and saddened at what happened during our meeting with Aziza last week. Since then, we have scheduled a follow-up meeting with her to offer mental health support while we continue working to find her a suitable home.”
Advocate Elshayal was also at the meeting, after Abuirdana requested she attend.
“She (Aziza Abuirdana) stood up during the meeting, she got very frustrated. I tried to talk to her, but she looked away and said something under her breath, then she took the knife out of her pocket and plunged it into her stomach.”
Continuing her recollection, Elshayal said, “She fell to the ground; I immediately went down and looked for something to put pressure on the wound and I asked the person from Polycultural to call 911.
“I could sense that every time we met that she was getting more and more frustrated. I’ve spoken with Polycultural and the IRCC about the mental health situation in the hotel.”
Doctors have told Abuirdana she’s fortunate that the knife didn’t go deeper into her stomach. The 22-year-old says she has the same hopes and dreams of anyone her age.
“I’d like to complete my education. I want to work and have a nice job, and have the chance to live a life. I deserve a chance to life but right now there’s nothing.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.
Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)
Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)
Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)
If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.