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Canadian alleges discrimination, sues federal government in effort to get grandchildren out of Gaza

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A Palestinian-Canadian is suing the federal government in an effort to get his four grandchildren out of Gaza.

Mohammed Nofal, 74, is alleging Global Affairs Canada and immigration officials created a discriminatory policy that denied his family help in evacuating a war zone in the days following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

In his federal court application filed on Dec. 4, Nofal alleges that GAC and the minister of citizenship and immigration treated Canadians with families in Gaza unfairly when compared to Canadians with families in Israel.

“In this case, we are making an accusation for abuse of power, for giving us misleading information and creating a discriminatory policy for evacuation,” said the Burlington man’s daughter, Wesam Nofal, in an interview with CTV News.

UNEVEN TREATMENT OF STRANDED CANADIANS

Mohammed Nofal is seeking an order from the federal court to force the minister to “correct their abuse of discretion” and process his application for visas for his grandchildren in southern Gaza.

In his lawsuit, Nofal alleges that the federal government was willing to evacuate the foreign children and grandchildren of Canadians and permanent residents living in Israel, but was unwilling to do the same for Palestinian-Canadians with loved ones trapped in Gaza.

The lawsuit also alleges that Israeli-Canadians were given a special code to expedite visitor visas while Palestinian-Canadians were not.

Between Oct. 12 and 23, more than 1,600 people boarded Canadian airlifts from Israel.

“I’m happy they are treating Canadian-Israelis the proper way, but the Canadian-Palestinians have been dehumanized and treated as second class citizens,” said Wesam.

The Nofal allegations focus on communications that came from Global Affairs Canada’s SOS email account seven days after Canada began evacuating people from Tel Aviv.

BUREAUCRATIC BUNGLE

Wesam sought information from GAC about getting her brother’s family of six out of Gaza.

On Oct. 19, she received a message from sos@international.gc.ca, which stipulated that assisted departure was “limited to Canadian citizens, permanent residents of Canada and their immediate non-Canadian family members who are currently in Israel.”

In email correspondence provided by Nofal to CTV News, GAC defined immediate family members as the “non-Canadian grandchild (under 22) and non-Canadian child (under 22) of a Canadian Citizen or Permanent Resident.”

Wesam said that when she reached out to GAC to see if their Gaza relatives qualified for evacuation, she was informed her brother and sister-in-law did not qualify, but their children were eligible for help.

She said she immediately began the process of applying for the grandchildren on behalf of her father.

Mohammad Nofal has four grandchildren in Gaza. The ages of the two girls and two boys range from 5 to 17 years old.

However on Oct. 22, GAC offered a “sincere apology” for mistakenly telling the family the non-Canadian grandchildren were eligible.

“Unfortunately, it seems like there was an error when we provided a response on the definition of immediate family,” a GAC representative wrote, while stating that Immigration and Citizenship Canada was responsible for the definition.

Mohammed, Ahmed, Fulla and Malek with their father, Amjad in Gaza last year.

POLICY FLIP-FLOPS

Two weeks later, as the bombings of Gaza intensified, the Nofals once again inquired whether the federal government would help rescue the grandchildren. According to a Nov. 4 email, GAC officials wrote that the children would qualify for departure assistance if Mohammad Nofal could provide documentation showing that his son was willing to transfer custody to him.

Working through a lawyer in Ramallah, West Bank, the family was able to get a legal document transferring guardianship of the four children from their parents to their grandfather. The process took 16 days.

In the interim, Mohammad applied for expedited visas for his grandchildren with the special code that the family received in its first email from GAC. But the code didn’t apply to Gazans.

According to the court filing, on Nov. 20, the Nofals sent the proof of guardianship to GAC only to be told by officials that they needed a second opinion from a lawyer in Canada.

'MISTAKES ARE MADE'

Two days later, the family said, they submitted verification from a Canadian lawyer that the document was binding. But on that same day, despite what they believed to be successful efforts to clear multiple bureaucratic hurdles, Mohammed was advised on Nov. 22 that his grandchildren were not eligible for evacuation.

On Thursday, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said he wasn’t aware of the specific allegations and did not want to speculate. But he expressed concern.

“It doesn't make sense to deny children. We have a limited window to advocate for a limited group of people. We’re talking about a war zone and it's one where we have tried our best to be flexible and mistakes are made at times.”

Miller acknowledged mistakes could come “with the effect it cost sometimes peoples’ lives.”

CTV News asked GAC if the foreign-born children and grandchildren of Canadians and permanent residents were permitted to board airlifts from Israel.

GAC did not answer the question but in a statement said that “assistance eligibility is applied consistently to all Canadians, permanent residents and eligible family members.”

“For privacy reasons, GAC does not comment on specific consular cases.”

From their Burlington, Ont., home, Mohammed Nofal and his wife, Intisar, try to check in daily with their son’s family. Often no one answers their mobile phones for hours or days - leaving the couple to fear the worst.

“I am broken,” said Mohammad, pointing to his heart as tears welled up in his eyes.

His son’s family is currently taking refuge near the Egyptian border, crowded into one room with about 100 other people.

They are close to the Rafah border crossing, the only exit out of Gaza, yet safety is not within their grasp.

The Rafah gate is controlled by Egypt, while the list of names of people who can leave is administered by Palestinian officials. Who goes in and out is closely monitored by Israel, and exit through the gates is not possible amid air strikes and ground battles.

GAC says more than 600 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family have crossed from Gaza into Egypt since Nov. 1. But there are still approximately 200 Canadians trapped in Gaza.

Earlier this week, the NDP called for special immigration measures to allow Palestinian-Canadians to apply for emergency visas for extended family members. Miller said he is working on a policy to help more Palestinians with Canadian ties. But the minister pointed out that even if Canada issues more visas, there is no guarantee they will be allowed to leave. Canada doesn’t control Rafah gate. 

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