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‘In harm’s way’: Passport dispute strands Canadian children who fled war-torn Ethiopia

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For the past few months, Hassan Mursal’s daughters have been on the run.

Now the Edmonton father is fighting to bring his children to Canada after they fled a war zone in Ethiopia, but a bizarre foul-up in one daughter’s passport application is making it difficult.

Mursal says he fears for the safety of his daughters — Saabiriin, 14, and Zuhur, 9 — who are stranded in Nairobi after recently fleeing the war-torn Ethiopian region where they had been living.

To bring the girls to Canada, Mursal must first replace his older daughter’s lost Canadian passport — but that process has been stalled due to a disputed photo.

“The situation is very bad now for them,” said Mursal in an interview with CBC News Wednesday. “The kids have no parent over there.”

Although the girls are Canadian citizens, as is their father, they’ve never lived in Canada. Mursal came as a refugee from Ethiopia to Canada in 1988. He married an Ethiopian woman during one of his many extended visits back to his homeland.

Two weeks after the birth of their second daughter in 2009, Mursal’s wife died from a heart attack. The sisters were left in the care of their aunt so that Mursal, who drove a taxi in Fort McMurray, could continue to work and provide for them.

In 2015, Mursal applied for a replacement passport in the hopes of bringing both daughters to Canada. Their aunt had just died and protests in the region were turning deadly.

“Sometimes you see dead bodies on the road and sometimes, like two or three weeks, you can’t come out from the home,” Mursal said, recalling time he’d spent in Ethiopia during that period.

Edmonton father issues plea to federal government to act quickly to bring his Canadian children to Canada after they fled a war zone. 0:50

Late last year, Mursal’s daughters were among thousands of people who fled the region amid prolonged violence and deadly clashes that escalated following October’s presidential election.

An Edmonton human rights group that has taken up his case met earlier this week with staff from the office of federal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi, MP for Edmonton Mill Woods.

Mark Cherrington, a volunteer with the Coalition of Human Rights and Justice, is concerned about the lack of response from the Canadian government.

We have a situation where we have two small children, Canadian children, that are in harm’s way, that were in a war zone and fled this war zone– Mark Cherrington, human rights advocate

“We have a situation where we have two small children, Canadian children, that are in harm’s way, that were in a war zone and fled this war zone,” said Cherrington.

“We’re asking that the Canadian government act intrusively and quickly and make sure that these two children are  kept safe and returned home to Canada with their father.”

The well-being of the children should be made the priority regardless of the issue with the passport photo, Cherrington added.

Impostor photo

The issue with the disputed photo on the passport application is that the photo is not Mursal’s daughter — a troubling situation that isn’t able to be clearly explained.

Officials with Immigration, Refugee Citizenship Canada (IRCC) say the “impostor” photo was submitted fraudulently. Mursal vehemently denies the allegation.

Mursal learned about the problem in a letter from the Passport Investigations Division on Dec. 20, 2016 — one of many documents he provided to CBC, including copies of his daughters’ expired Canadian passports.

The letter, signed by an investigator who provided an unreadable signature and no name, acknowledges his custodial duty as the only surviving parent and references the police report of his daughter’s lost passport.

However, it also informs Mursal he is under investigation for allegedly “providing false or misleading information in support of the application submitted in the name of Saabiriin Hassan Mursal.”

The document explained that facial recognition software, which compared the photo to a previous passport photo of Saabiriin, showed “a minimal resemblance.”

Canadian authorities says a photo of an unknown female (right) was submitted instead of Hassan Mursal’s daughter (left). (IRCC)

Further, Canadian government officials told CBC News that embassy staff said Mursal was accompanied by the impostor when he initially made the application at the Canadian embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Mursal said that is not the case and that he was with his daughter that day.

He acknowledges the female in the photo is not his daughter, but insists it is not the photo he submitted.

“I never seen that picture before that time,” Mursal said.

Revenge?

Mursal suggested the photo was switched, perhaps in response to his request to speak to someone higher up, a request he believes may have offended a staff member. 

“He is the one who replaced another photo in my daughter’s application due to what I was asking for,” Mursal wrote in a letter on Feb. 2, 2017, in response to the allegations.

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Mursal denied knowing the person in the other photo and described it as an act of revenge. “I swear that I submitted my daughter’s real photo,” he wrote.

Mursal alleged he was indirectly asked to pay a bribe, which he refused to do.

But IRCC stood firm and informed him in January 2018 that his passport privileges were revoked until 2022.

Hassan Mursal pictured with his late wife and older daughter in 2004. (Hassan Mursal)

Mursal says that on May 30, 2018, he sent to the Canadian Embassy in Addis Ababa an application for a limited “travel document in special circumstances under urgent, compelling and compassionate” grounds. In it, he said his children hadn’t been able to attend school in months.

In July, Mursal travelled back to Edmonton alone on an emergency travel document to plead his case on Canadian soil. He said he was told the document he travelled on could not be issued for his daughters.

“We are alarmed at how the response has been by the Canadian government to make sure that these Canadian children are returned home safely and kept safe in the interim,” said Cherrington.

Cherrington called for an investigation into the allegations against embassy officials but IRCC said it has confidence in the integrity and professionalism of its employees.

Sohi’s office, which Cherrington said has been helpful, declined to comment.

Global Affairs, which provides emergency assistance to Canadians overseas, has not provided comment.

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca
@andreahuncar

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List of Tourist Attractions Open Now in Ottawa

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With Ontario now in Step 3 of 2021 three-step plan for reopening, museums and other indoor attractions are allowed to reopen with capacity limited to not exceed 50 per cent capacity indoors and 75 per cent capacity outdoors.

Here is a list of Ottawa attractions you can visit starting July 16th.

Do remember to wear masks and buy tickets in advance.

Parliament Hill

Parliament’s Centre Block and Peace Tower are closed for renovation.

You can join for tours of the Senate of Canada Building (2 Rideau Street), House of Commons at West Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill, and East Block at East Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill.

When: Grounds open; guided tours of Parliament are suspended through the summer of 2021.
Where: 111 Wellington Street, Downtown Ottawa

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Ottawa performer leapfrogs from gymnastics to Broadway to TV

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A new AppleTV+ series set in a magical town that’s stuck in a neverending 1940s musical includes a pair of Ottawa siblings in the cast. 

Warren Yang and his sister, Ericka Hunter, play two of the singing, dancing residents of the village portrayed in Schmigadoon!, a small-screen series that takes its cues from classic musicals like Brigadoon, Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music, and skewers them with the offbeat comedic mastery of Saturday Night Live. 

In fact, you’ll recognize many of the names from SNL, starting with executive producer Lorne Michaels, creator of the late-night, live-comedy sketch show. Schmigadoon! also stars SNL cast member Cecily Strong and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who hosted SNL in May. They play a New York couple who get lost on a hike and stumble into a strange town where everyone sings and dances. 

For Yang, a relative newcomer to show-biz, the series marks his television debut. For Hunter, the younger of his two older sisters, it’s the latest in a career path that began with dance lessons as a child more than 30 years ago. She attended Canterbury High School, Ottawa’s arts-focused secondary school. 

“Her dream was always to perform,” said Yang, 34, in an interview. “But that was never the path I thought was an option for me.” 

While his sister studied dance, Yang did gymnastics. He was an elite gymnast throughout his youth, ultimately leaving Merivale High School at 16 to train in Montreal, finishing high school through correspondence courses. He was a member of the Canadian National Team and received a scholarship to study at Penn State, majoring in marketing. 

A few years after graduation, Yang was working at an advertising agency in Toronto when he got a call from a Manhattan number. To his astonishment, they asked if he would be interested in auditioning for a Broadway revival of Miss Saigon.

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COVID-19: uOttawa to require vaccination for students living in residence

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Vaccination will be mandatory for students who want to live in residence at the University of Ottawa this year, with proof of vaccination and at least one dose required before move-in, or within two weeks of doing so if they can’t secure a shot before arriving.

Those who can’t receive a vaccine for “health-related reasons or other grounds protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code” will be able to submit a request for accommodation through the university’s housing portal, according to information on the university’s website.

Students with one dose living in residence will also have to receive their second dose “within the timeframe recommended by Ottawa Public Health.”

People who haven’t been granted an exemption and don’t get vaccinated or submit proof of having done so by the deadlines set out by the school will have their residence agreements terminated, uOttawa warns.

“Medical and health professionals are clear that vaccination is the most (effective) means of protecting people and those around them,” reads a statement provided to this newspaper by uOttawa’s director of strategic communications, Patrick Charette.

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“It is precisely for this reason that the University of Ottawa is requiring all students living in residence for the 2021-2022 academic year to be fully vaccinated. The University recognizes that some students may require accommodations for a variety of reasons and will be treating exceptions appropriately.”

Faculty, staff and students are also strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, the statement notes.

“Ensuring a high vaccine coverage in all communities is critical to ensuring an ongoing decline in cases and ending the pandemic. This will be especially important with the return of students to post-secondary institutions in our region in the fall of 2021.”

Neither Carleton University nor Algonquin College is currently mandating vaccination for students living in residence, according to the websites for both schools. But uOttawa isn’t alone in its policy – Western University, Trent University, Durham College and Fanshawe College have all implemented similar requirements. Seneca College, in the GTA, is going even further, making vaccination mandatory for students and staff to come to campus, in-person, for the fall term.

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