Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Distance hurts personal connections

Waiting for reunions often takes a toll

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CANADA relies on immigration to grow and grease its economic engine -- and expects its newcomers to leave loved ones behind. Most hope that, once they're on their feet in Canada, family will join them, at least for a visit.

No one tells them they may wait so long to see each other again, their relationships won't survive.

Ottawa is imposing a two-year moratorium on immigration applications from parents and grandparents and an embargo on privately sponsored refugees. Officials say it's an effort to clear a backlog of applications, the worst of which is at Canada's visa office in Nairobi, Kenya. It handles all of East Africa and has a processing time of 37 months for government-assisted refugees and 51 months for sponsored refugees.

The long wait for loved ones to come takes a toll.

Nurse Ade Kossigbo came to Winnipeg in 1993 from Liberia. She struggled and saved for more than 10 years to bring her husband and his two little girls to Canada from a refugee camp in Ghana.

Eventually she succeeded in reuniting them all. But as a family unit, they did not survive.

"The longer you wait, the more you lose your relationship and the connection," said Kossigbo.

She and her husband separated last year.

"My perspective of life is different. I came 19 years ago," she said. "He came way after I came -- the connection, everything, just went down the drain."

Still, Kossigbo believes a late reunion that fractures is better than no reunion. They're all safe in Canada and resilient people, she said. "It can be fixed. There's still hope."

Others see the difficulty of bringing people to visit eroding family values.

"It does affect us in a tremendous way, more than people can imagine," said Florence Okwudili. When her dad died in Nigeria in 2004, she invited her mom to come to Winnipeg so she wouldn't have to spend her first Christmas without him alone.

Her mom's visa application wasn't approved until 2010.

Africans, as opposed to people from developed European nations, are often prevented from visiting Canada, Okwudili said. Yet pensioners from African countries, like her mom, have no desire to overstay their visitor's visa in this cold climate, she said.

The struggle for families to reunite is not the fault of "evil or non-caring" immigration employees, says the man who runs Winnipeg's largest private sponsorship agency.

"We have a sort of fortress Canada approach, as I think do developed countries everywhere," said Tom Denton, Hospitality House executive director.

"We are more concerned with keeping people out than letting them in. The resulting rules create horror stories all the time."


Warm reception is key

A clinical psychologist who immigrated from Africa says the stress and anxiety of coming to a new place and leaving loved ones behind can be lessened if newcomers feel welcome.

"Sometimes people have a hard time fitting in over here," said Prof. Rehman Abdulrehman, who works with patients with anxiety and depression at the University of Manitoba's department of clinical health psychology in the faculty of medicine.

"It varies from person to person, but mental health often is reflective of people's everyday lives and stresses," said the prof who came to Canada with his family from Tanzania when he was seven.

"It's not always reflective of missing home."

For refugees forced to flee their countries, there are even more challenges than those faced by immigrants who left their country by choice, he said.

"As an immigrant, you have some level of control. As a refugee, you tend to be stuck between a rock and a hard place... Many families are put in a position where they're separated for decades. It has a definite negative impact."

In most cases, people can help newcomers separated from loved ones by practising some old-fashioned neighbourliness, said the psychologist.

"The best thing is to be welcoming, open and helpful... That social support is a critical element."


-- Carol Sanders

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 0

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