A Federal Court judge will decide whether nine-year-old Kashaf Zahra, who starts Grade 4 in Winnipeg next week, gets another chance to stay in Canada.
Prominent human rights lawyer David Matas went to court Thursday with the petite, soft-spoken Kashaf and her father, Zahid Abbas, to ask Justice Shirzad Ahmed to assign a new Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada member to adjudicate a refugee protection hearing.
Kashaf was born with Poland syndrome, which is characterized by an underdeveloped chest muscle and short webbed fingers on one side of the body. It made her a target for discrimination and persecution in Pakistan, advocates say.
"It's a cultural attitude and it's pervasive," said Matas, citing published reports in Pakistan about the maltreatment of people with physical challenges. He said Kashaf has also been a target because of her parents' "mixed" Sunni-Shia marriage. The girl's mother has also reportedly been the victim of assault as a result.
In 2017, the Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa, Fla., brought Kashaf to the United States for surgery on the webbed fingers of her right hand. Her family of four was allowed only two U.S. visitor visas. Her mother and little sister went to Islamabad for their safety, while Kashaf and her father travelled to Tampa.
Abbas consulted with an immigration lawyer in Florida, who said making an asylum claim in the U.S. is currently a costly and hopeless proposition for people from Pakistan. Abbas felt taking his daughter to face further persecution in Pakistan seemed even more hopeless. He decided to seek asylum in Canada, flying to Minnesota, then getting a ride to the border.
In August 2017, he and Kashaf walked into Canada near Emerson, and applied for refugee protection. Abbas got a job at Tim Hortons and enrolled Kashaf in school.
Her principal at Dr. D.W. Penner School in St. Vital said in an April letter to immigration officials Kashaf is thriving — progressing quickly, making friends and getting physiotherapy for the effects of Poland syndrome.
"She is experiencing success as a learner and as a child," Tim MacKay wrote. "I wholeheartedly advocate for her to continue as a student in our school, so that she may flourish as a learner and further enrich her connection to this community."
Abbas' boss — who co-owns and operates 14 Tim Hortons outlets — offered written support, as well.
"Zahid cares about people and wants to contribute to their well-being where possible," wrote Chelsey Kent-Beauchamp. "In my opinion, Mr. Abbas would be a credit to the country."
The pair are covered by Manitoba Health but receive no social assistance or handouts, Abbas said proudly.
"We are managing," said Abbas. "She has lots of friends."
Their embrace of Canada hasn't been reciprocated by the Immigration and Refugee Board.
In January 2018, a board adjudicator rejected their refugee claim, saying he didn’t believe the family faces persecution because of Kashaf’s physical challenge or her parents' Sunni-Shia marriage.
On Thursday, Matas told Ahmed the adjudicator didn't fully consider the conditions of Pakistan, where those with disabilities routinely suffer discrimination and persecution. He argued there's no reasonably safe place in that country for Kashaf and her family.
The federal counsel for the case argued the onus is on Abbas to show how protection from the state was not available.
Alexander Menticoglou said Abbas — a former police constable in Multan, Pakistan — didn't report the attack on his Shia wife by vengeful Sunni relatives. His wife and youngest daughter haven't been found hiding in the sprawling capital of Islamabad, and there's no indication Abbas and Kashaf would be discovered, too, if they joined them, he said.
The judge questioned that.
"Is there a chance they will be found if she has to get (medical) help?" Ahmed asked, before reserving his decision Thursday.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.