Sunday, September 16, 2007

He paints seagulls and longs to be free

Shree Kumar Rai lives his days confined in a church, fearing for his life if he returns to Nepal and afraid Canada will continue to reject him

Kelly Egan, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shree Kumar Rai has been trapped in a church for seven months, spending his days in a cinder-block room with lime-green furniture and the chatterings of CBC radio. When Mr. Rai left Nepal in 1996, his son was a boy. Now he is 14 and nearly a man. For his 11 years in Canada, the father has had only one steady presence in his life -- a gnawing absence.

But he has found a way to bring the outside world in. Mr. Rai has learned to paint.

A failed refugee claimant, Mr. Rai, 44, was ordered deported by Feb. 27, the same day he voluntarily sought sanctuary inside First Unitarian Congregation, an activist church along the Ottawa River near Woodroffe Avenue.

He is confined to the grounds here and an elaborate network of 75 volunteers provides round-the-clock company, even sleeping in the next room on a rotating schedule.

For up to six hours a day, Mr. Rai paints landscapes -- trees, mountains, ponds, flowers -- mostly from images he finds on the Internet. His talent is evident. One work in particular delights him: a painting depicting a sea-gull flying toward the setting sun on a palm-treed beach.

Yes, that is how he dreams of himself. Free as a bird.

First Unitarian held something of pep-rally and update for Mr. Rai on Friday evening. It consisted of a short theatrical performance and a talk by Peter Showler, a lawyer and academic who is the former chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Mr. Rai himself spoke before a crowd of perhaps 100, doing his best in patchy English. He held the microphone in his right hand, left hand jammed in his pocket, eyes often fixed on the floor.

He wore shiny new white running shoes, as though anxious to make tracks. Behind him, visible through a wall of windows, the tree-tops flapped noisily away in a hard wind.

He was a school teacher in Nepal from 1987 to 1990. During a protest against the killing of a political leader in 1993, he was jailed and beaten. In 1995, he was arrested again and accused of smuggling arms into the country.

In February 1996, his home was raided. Police seized his father who would later die of injuries suffered while in custody.

"He was my father and he died because of me," he told the audience.

Mr. Rai, fearing for his life, fled to Canada via Moscow, settling in Montreal, where he learned to become a sushi chef.

His refugee claim, meanwhile, was twice rejected. Mr. Rai is worried about retribution if he returns to his homeland and longs to bring his wife and son to Canada.

Mr. Showler, with 25 years experience in immigration law, delivered a concise analysis of the case. He was dressed entirely in black, save for T-shirt with a white iconic image above the words: "Einstein was a refugee." Mr. Showler stopped short of saying Mr. Rai is a bona fide refugee, but made a persuasive argument for faulty process.

"I think he's been treated badly by the system," said Mr. Showler, chairman of the refugee board for three years and a judge on hundreds of cases.

It was four years before Mr. Rai had his first hearing, an unreasonable length of time, he argued. The delay aside, the claimant did not have adequate legal counsel. This led to "a clear error of law" that was corrected on appeal.

The second hearing took three more years, a delay he called inexcusable. "Clearly, he was lost in the shuffle and that's not his fault, it's the fault of the system." Mr. Showler also found portions of the second ruling bizarre and illogical. "I don't think he received a good second hearing." He said Canada has moved to a system where it permits refugee hearings to be heard by a single panel member. It is a great way to clear up a backlog, he said, but the government failed to act on the second part of the promised initiative -- an efficient appeal system.

"There is no appeal of single-member decision, even though Parliament said there should be and that's inexcusable," said Mr. Showler.

"The real concern is nobody knows the number of badly decided cases by single members that are not being caught by this application-for-leave process to the Federal Court. This is the scary part." Mr. Showler said refugee board judges have one of the toughest jobs in the Canadian judiciary. There is no paper trail for victims of torture and their stories are often impossible to corroborate, while language barriers and stress disorders can make their narratives that much weaker.

The work can be gratifying, however.

"You hear tremendously heart-breaking stories. The other side of being a member, when you hear a story that you believe, and conclude the person is a refugee, it's fabulous to be able to say, 'yes, you're safe. You've undergone these horrific experiences in your life, but you are safe.' "There are a lot of tears in refugee hearing rooms, as well, but some of those are tears of relief and joy." A community rally for Mr. Rai is being planned for Oct. 24.