Sunday, January 6, 2008

CP: Refugee claimant hopes for freedom after two years in church sanctuary

Original article HERE.

MONTREAL - An Algerian refugee claimant who faces deportation says his dream of Canadian status still burns brightly two years after taking sanctuary in a church.

"I feel like I am in jail without reason," Abdelkader Belaouni said Saturday, the second anniversary of his deportation order from Canada.

"I didn't do something wrong. I pay for the office of the immigration's mistake."

Belaouni, who lost his vision 15 years ago and suffers from diabetes, found refuge in a Montreal presbytery on Jan. 1, 2006, days before a warrant was drawn up for his arrest.

He lives in a cramped upstairs room of the century-old building, nestled between two Catholic churches in the city's Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood.

The grocer from Oran, Algeria feels safe among his possessions - including a small bed, keyboard and blind-assisted computer - but the wait is a lonely one, he says.

"It's small, but for me it's many things," said Belaouni, his eyes closed tight behind oval sunglasses.

"For me, it's my world."

Belaouni immigrated to New York City in 1996 after civil war erupted in Algeria.

But as an Algerian Muslim, he said he faced racial backlash in the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Belaouni said he was placed on a special registration list because he came from a country with a Muslim majority, and his passport was confiscated.

He feared imprisonment and deportation to Algeria, prompting his move to Canada in March 2003.

After his arrival, Belaouni worked as a volunteer for several community groups in the working-class neighbourhood, but never found a job.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada denied his refugee claim on the grounds he was unemployed and had no family in the country.

Belaouni's case has gathered support from about 250 organizations in Quebec and MPs from each of the four major political parties. A committee was established to fight for his cause.

Thousands of people have signed petitions, taken part in community marches and sent postcards to the immigration department on his behalf, he said.

"My case is a very strong case," said Belaouni, whose friends also supply his food and medication.

In a letter addressed to federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley in May 2007, his supporters asked the ministry to intervene.

Bloc Quebecois MP Thierry St-Cyr, who represents Belaouni's riding, said refugee claimants have the right to appeal decisions in law, but the government has yet to set up the system.

"I believe that Mr. (Belaouni) didn't have a chance to have a fair decision," St-Cyr said on Saturday.

"We know that he's well-integrated... into his community. He's willing to work to contribute to society, so I believe that his situation should be regularized and that the minister should take the appropriate measures to correct this situation."

Finley's office would not comment on the specific case, but said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees views Canada's refugee policy as an example for other countries.

"I will say that Canada has a fair, internationally-recognized system for providing refuge for those fleeing persecution in their home country," Finley's spokesman Tim Vail wrote in an e-mail Saturday.

"It is imperative for the integrity of this system that all individuals respect our immigration laws."

Meanwhile, Belaouni will continue to host a monthly radio program called "Hour of Power" on a community station. His show tackles social issues, such as poverty and youth support.

"I want to find justice and this is the best country in the world you can find justice," he said through his thick accent.

"If not find justice in Canada, you'll never find it."