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This article was published 15/8/2004 (4785 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
RAGHEB and Warda Zalfo dodged Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons attacks on northern Iraq. Then they languished for seven years in a Kurdish refugee camp in Syria. They immigrated to Canada in 1998, living in Edmonton for one year before moving to Winnipeg in 1999, where they hoped life would get better. In 2002, their 17-year-old daughter was murdered and the slaying remains unsolved. Over the last year, their eight youngest children were apprehended by Winnipeg Child and Family Services.
"I need my children back," Warda said in broken English. "I need police to tell me who killed my child."
"We fled war, bombing, death and starvation," her husband, Ragheb, 38, said through an interpreter. "We hoped we were going to have a better life, a normal life when we came to Canada — not all these problems with the government and CFS."
The Zalfos say they are being treated as suspects in their daughter's slaying, but have never been charged. They feel they've been singled out by CFS which has taken their eight youngest children, aged 15 years to 10 weeks old. A baby boy born June 4 was taken from Warda just days after she gave birth.
Ala Al-Badri, the family's settlement worker from Welcome Place, which helps refugees adjust here, said the child welfare system has failed the Zalfos, who have permanent resident status in Canada.
"If I have a problem and I can't walk, find someone to help me adapt to the environment. With this process, they just take the kids away and that's it, instead of sending a support worker to help them cope," said Al-Badri.
"(The system) is treating these people as if they were born in this culture. They don't know anything about CFS and child protection."
The Zalfos say they're at the end of their rope with the system and believe their last hope for getting their children back is to make their plight known through the media. They're also hoping the publicity might cause someone to come forward with information about their daughter's death.
Asmahan's body was found near Lockport in 2002. It was discovered on a Sunday afternoon in April under a pile of rocks along the bank of the Red River, near the outlet of the Winnipeg floodway. She was last seen four days earlier leaving her parents' inner-city home to go to the store. Friends said she was a shy young woman who didn't drink or do drugs. It looked as though she was badly beaten about the face, said her younger sister Kawsar, who saw her sister's body just prior to the funeral.
The trouble with CFS started after Asmahan's slaying. Kawsar was dating a gang member, going to bars and drinking underage, said Ragheb, her father. On one occasion last year, he ordered the girl who was 14 at the time not to leave the house at 2 a.m., saying he'd lost one daughter and didn't want to lose another. She insisted.
"He slapped me and I lied and told CFS he beat me up," said the girl, now 15, who's living in a Tuxedo group home. "My parents are kind of strict. It's a cultural thing." She said she wanted more freedom, so she lied to authorities that her mother threatened to kill her just like her sister.
Her father was charged with assault, and the CFS began to take a closer look at the family and found the six- and seven-year-old children weren't attending school regularly. Al-Badri said a case worker visited the house and found there was little food in the home. At that time, Warda's mother, who was visiting from the United States, suffered a heart attack and the family was spending a lot of time with the elderly woman at the hospital and eating take-out, he said.
The assault charge against their father was dropped, but the children were taken into care.
"I blame myself for everything," Kawsar said at a downtown pizzeria. She wants to go home, and she wants CFS to give her back her family.
"We're nothing. My sister got murdered. They took the kids away for one slap."
The Zalfos are devastated that the fabric of their family has been torn apart and they need help mending it back together, said Al-Badri.
"They are a couple of ordinary people trying to survive. They will do whatever they can to get their children back," said Al-Badri. "The mother is very depressed." They are now trying to fight the CFS from gaining permanent custody of the children.
Both Zalfos, who work part time as cleaners, said they took anger management and parenting courses recommended by CFS with the help of a translator. With the cultural differences, much is lost in translation, Al-Badri said.
"How are they going to benefit if they can't speak English?"
The stress of settling in a new land and the shock and grief over losing their daughter has been compounded by the fact Asmahan's killer hasn't been caught, said Al-Badri.
"They feel they are still under police investigation," he said. Ragheb and their oldest son, Mouhammed, have volunteered samples for DNA and blood tests. No one has been charged in Asmahan's killing. The RCMP could not comment on the status of the murder investigation. Since the beginning, the investigation has focused on the parents and oldest brother, claimed Warda Zalfo, clutching her stomach and her breast.
"I kept her here for nine months and fed her here for three years," she said in halting English. "Why should I kill her?"
Asmahan, who would be 19 today, was married in a cultural ceremony to Jamal Salehi, 36. He took the family under his wing when they moved to Winnipeg, acting as their translator and growing close to Asmahan. Their marriage was not legally recognized and they were to be officially wed when she turned 18. The couple lived together in an apartment on Hargrave Street.
Ragheb said he sees other parents struggling in their inner-city neighbourhood, drinking and neglecting their children and CFS doesn't apprehend them. He said Warda won't allow alcohol in their house. "She never drinks, never goes to the bar. She stays home cooking with the kids."
Jay Rodgers, acting executive director of Winnipeg Child and Family Services, said he couldn't talk about the Zalfos or any other case. He did say that CFS is sensitive to the fact that new Canadians may have different parenting styles.
If there are language or cultural barriers, CFS will work with the International Centre or another agency to assign a staff person with a common cultural background to work with the parent, he said. The child protection agency also has a roster of people from a broad range of cultural backgrounds it can call on for help with cases, as well as interpreters whose costs CFS covers, said Rodgers.
"Whatever their background is, we try and make sure we have a communication. It's critical. New Canadians are experiencing a new culture." And, sometimes, a new set of rules about what child-rearing practices are acceptable, he said.
"Typically, unless there were child protection concerns, there wouldn't be any involvement (with CFS)."
The federal and provincial governments are raising immigration targets to keep the population from shrinking, and that means agencies like CFS have to be prepared to handle more cross-cultural clients.
"It's really important. New Canadians may have different mores and norms and different perspectives on what constitutes basic needs (in terms of parenting). Communicating what our laws are is not always easy. Sometimes new Canadians may not have a cultural context for understanding the message," said Rodgers.
"Some of our staff are part of a working group with the International Centre. We need to pay attention to the issue, especially when the most significant part of our population growth is likely from immigration."
Al-Badri, who is a trained social worker, said CFS may have the best of intentions, but its resources are stretched thin, he said.
"We try to work with CFS in some cases, with orientation for clients about what the law is here and about child protection law."
"They're overloaded with cases."