“God opens the door” to refugees

Younis Gil with his rosary at his new home in Mississauga, Ont. The Pakistani refugee fled his homeland due to a made-up charge of blasphemy, first to Thailand and now in Canada, where he and his family settled earlier this year. (Photos by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register, CCN)

Pakistani Catholic Younis family now seeks the Canadian dream

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Younis Gil struggles with English. Years of stress, uncertainty and hard labour have left an imprint. But he squares his shoulders, straightens his back, meets your gaze and smiles.

With his wife Saleema Bibi and surrounded by three of his adult children plus a son-in-law, he is a proud pater familias embracing a life that a few months ago was hard to imagine.

Just over halfway through the Younis family’s eight years living in the shadows of Bangkok, The Catholic Register took a photo of Gil with his head bowed and his rosary wrapped around his fingers. The photo deliberately hid his face. The story gave him the alias “Jonas Saman.”

Like all the Pakistani Christians hiding out in Bangkok in 2019, Younis Gil had to keep his name and face off the Internet, out of public view, for fear of being betrayed to the Royal Thai Immigration Police. Or worse yet, he might have been hunted down by Pakistani extremists who would take his life, without trial or evidence, in revenge for a made-up, fantastical charge of blasphemy.

It was Younis Gil’s Catholic ideals and hopes that landed the family in exile. He had founded an NGO in Pakistan and was driven by the idea of development. He wanted to provide training opportunities for young people to work in the trades.

Daughter Seemab followed in her father’s footsteps, helping women who worked as domestic servants to face issues of abuse and unfair employment conditions. The Guardians of the Prophet’s Companions didn’t like any of this activity on their turf. When a mob burned down Lahore’s Joseph Colony in March of 2013, Younis Gil and his family knew they had to be elsewhere.

They might have been in Canada sooner, were it not for COVID-19. The Office for Refugees for the Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT) interviewed them, one of 63 families hoping for refugee sponsorship, in July 2019. The process was nearly complete when travel shut down in March 2020. For ORAT, getting the families here has been a long, long commitment of faith.

Three years on, Younis Gil comes to the door of the four-bedroom, three-bath suburban house, which the combined refugee committees of St. Martin of Tours and St. Ignatius parishes have provided for the family, wearing that same rosary around his neck. He’s had to repair it a couple of times, but the wooden beads strung along fraying, knotted threads of different colours are more precious to him than ever.

His daughter, Sunena, comes downstairs with sleep still in her eyes, but eager to talk. She got home at two in the morning, after doing overtime putting clothes on hangers at an industrial laundry.

“This is our dream house,” she says.
Out in the west end of Mississauga, the house is nothing special. All the other houses on the crescent (and there is nothing but houses in the neighbourhood) look pretty much the same. On the one side, the Younis family’s new neighbours are Coptic Orthodox Christians from Egypt. On the other side is a family from India. The Pakistanis-in-exile fit right in.

It took a while to get all eight of them together in that house. Sunena arrived Jan. 27. Her sister Seemab with her husband Aurangezeb Joseph and their children Joshua and Divine Mary got there Feb. 9. Sunena’s big brother Shan arrived Feb. 24. Nobody seems to remember when the younger brother Adeeb arrived. Finally their father and mother landed at Pearson International Airport March 17.

(Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register, CCN)

Another brother, Simon, and his family (a wife and two children) are still in Thailand.
 In 2019 this whole extended family were living in a one-room apartment of about 400 square feet (37 square metres), including the balcony. They had two beds, a couple of shelves and a cabinet. On a high shelf — too high for the children to reach — was a little shrine where statues of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus resided. They cooked chicken biryani for a special guest on an electric ring on the floor and served the meal on one of the beds. 
It would take a lot of hours of cash-under-the-table labour to pay for that meal.

Younis Gil worked part time, whenever he could, in restaurants. His sons picked up day jobs at construction sites when they could. They all had to keep an eye out for police and for other desperate migrants who would turn them into the police.

Thailand never signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees and doesn’t recognize refugees. Refugees are classed 
as illegal residents and regularly rounded up, thrown into overcrowded jails and then sent back to countries they had fled in fear for their lives.

Just weeks into their Canadian sojourn, most of the adults in the family are working. Sunena has benefits at the laundry company. Shan and Adeeb have temporary jobs with Elections Ontario for the riding of Mississauga Centre. Aurangezeb (also known as Harry) has a similar job in the neighbouring riding of Erin Mills.

Shalini Alleluia, provincial returning officer for Mississauga Centre and habitual volunteer at St. Ignatius Parish, has connected the Younis family with jobs. She knows the Elections Ontario jobs won’t last, but it gives her time to search out opportunities with more of a future.

“I’m sure I will keep hunting down opportunities for these boys as a career in the long term,” Alleluia said. “I’ve been in Canada 52 years. I’ve got enough contacts.”

Sunena is already thinking of more meaningful work. She has in her sights early childhood education or a job as a personal support worker. Her brothers just want to work.

“We are confident,” said Aurangezeb. “We have rights here. We have freedom. We have our health free. We have education for our children free. The only thing we have to do is we have to work. This is our duty. We can work.”

Dreams are beginning to occupy the space in their souls once filled with fear. Sunena wants to see Niagara Falls. Adeeb wants to see the Rocky Mountains and Lake Louise.

The here and now is good, too. Joshua, who suffered a stroke at birth and struggles to communicate, has been given a helmet and a place in senior kindergarten. Three years ago the boy was stuck in that one-room apartment where his parents, uncles and aunts feared his cries could betray them to the police.
 Of course, it wasn’t just a single one-room apartment. There were six different apartments over their eight years in Bangkok. Keeping ahead of the police was never simple.

Family members know they are the lucky ones. They remember the Pakistani Christians they left behind.
 “We also are praying for all of them,” said Shan Younis.

“God opens the door for us,” said Sunena.

“Jonas Saman” has come through the belly of the whale and landed in the suburbs, where “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4).


Pakistan blasphemy law ‘costing lives’

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Canada can do more to counter Pakistan’s blasphemy law — a law that made refugees of the Younis family and thousands of others, whose lives are on hold in Bangkok and other places around the world — the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief told the All-Party Parliamentary Interfaith Caucus in an online presentation earlier this month.

University of Essex Professor of International Human Rights Law Ahmed Shaheed, who works pro-bono for the UN monitoring and promoting religious freedom around the world, singled out Pakistan’s blasphemy law as a particularly grave violation of human rights and religious freedom.

“That blasphemy law is creating havoc in Pakistan,” he said. “It’s costing lives.”

The mere existence of the law has emboldened extremists and politically-connected street gangs such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik. The blasphemy law has resulted in a breakdown of law and order in Pakistan, Shaheed said.

Between 1990 and 2019, 62 people were murdered by angry mobs because they faced an accusation of blasphemy in Pakistan, according to the 2019 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Though the law carries a possible sentence of death for blasphemers, the death penalty option has not been used. Asia Bibi, now living in Canada, was sentenced to hang and held in prison for nearly nine years before Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2018 overturned the decision citing insufficient evidence.

“Anti-blasphemy laws certainly work to undermine religious freedom,” Shaheed said.

As a leading voice for human rights in the international community, Canada can influence Pakistan’s legal framework and its assaults on religious freedom, said Shaheed. Canada’s approach to the issue should be “impact focused,” as opposed to representation on every international commission or body with a connection to the issue, he said.

The UN envoy suggested Canada apply “Magnitsky-type sanctions” on Pakistani politicians and others who promote blasphemy laws and prosecutions for political gain. Canada adopted its own Magnitsky law in 2017, known as the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. It allows the government to target foreign nationals who are “complicit in gross violations of human rights; or are public officials or an associate of such an official, who are responsible for or complicit in acts of significant corruption.”

The act has been invoked on multiple occasions to single out Russian officials, investors and business leaders following the invasion of Ukraine.

Shaheed suggests social media platforms “also be held to account” for hate speech and false information intended to create hostility to religious communities and religious belief.

The Canadian government should also engage Pakistani parliamentarians who justify blasphemy laws and challenge the legal reasoning of Pakistani judges.

“Canada must be prepared to demonstrate its concern for people persecuted by these laws,” he said.