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Canadian family says their relative starved to death in Gaza waiting for a visa

As It Happens6:56Canadian family says their relative starved to death in Gaza waiting for a visa

While Sawsan Karashuli and her son were toiling with visa paperwork in Canada, her brother was slowly wasting away in Gaza.

For months, the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., woman and her son Marcus have been trying to secure emergency visas for her brother, Ismail Qarsholi, and his daughter, Lina Qarsholi.

But on March 5 — two months after Sawsan filed the initial application — Ismail died.

“Mom had started … setting up his room. They were coming with nothing,” Marcus Karashuli told As It Happens host Nil Köksal through tears. 

“And at the end of it all, it’s like it’s all for nothing.”

Ismail died in northern Gaza, where no functional hospitals remain standing to determine his exact cause of death. But his family believes he died of starvation after months of struggling to find anything to eat in the besieged enclave. 

Gaza visa program a ‘failure’: immigration minister

In January, the Canadian government launched a temporary visa program for 1,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have family in Canada.

But since the day it launched, Palestinian Canadians and immigration lawyers have said the requirements are too onerous and unrealistic for people in Gaza, which is under near-constant bombardment.

“It was an extremely tortuous process,” Marcus said of the paperwork involved. 

LISTEN | Immigration lawyer says Gaza visa program falls short: 

As It Happens6:55Feds will offer visas to 1,000 Gazans with family in Canada. This lawyer says that’s not enough

The federal government says it will bring 1,000 people from Gaza to Canada under its new extended family program. Immigration lawyer Yameena Ansari advocated for the policy, but says it falls short. She told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams putting a cap on visas will leave “hundreds, if not thousands of Palestinian Canadian families out in the dust.”

As of March 11, 986 applications had been accepted into processing, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said in a statement. 

But there are only two ways out of Gaza — through Israel, or through Egypt.

And so far, only 14 visa applicants have managed to cross from Gaza into Egypt for the required final biometrics screenings and been cleared to come to Canada, IRCC says.

“It’s a convoluted situation because if they can get out of Gaza into safety anywhere, they would be willing to do that,” Marcus said. “It just made no sense at all. It just seemed like an impossible situation.”

A woman adjusts the curtains in a sparsely furnished bedroom.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller has admitted the program is a “failure.” 

Miller’s office did not respond to a request for comment before deadline. But on Monday in Ottawa, he said Canada is pleading with Egypt and Israel to let those people out so they can complete their security screening in Cairo and receive a visa.

Marcus is calling on the Canadian government to work more closely with border officials on the ground to secure passage for visa applicants. 

“I can’t believe that this is happening in this day and age, that, like, countries are not able to intervene or try to save human lives,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.”

Humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Before the current war, Ismail, 67, was enjoying retirement from a long career as an education director. And Lina, 25, was getting her graduate degree in law.

But that all changed on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials. 

Israel swiftly retaliated with airstrikes and a ground assault on Hamas-controlled Gaza, killing more than 30,000 people, according to the local health ministry.

Since then, about 1.9 million, or 85 per cent of Gazans have been displaced, according to the United Nations.

Famine is “imminent” in northern Gaza, where 70 per cent of people are experiencing catastrophic hunger, a United Nations-backed report said Monday.

Close-up of a smiling elderly man with a gray mustache against a white background.
Ismail Qarsholi died in Gaza on March 4 after suffering months of malnutrition. His Canadian family had been trying to secure him a temporary visa, to no avail. (Submitted by Marcus Karashuli)

Marcus says the last time he and his mother spoke to their family in Gaza before his uncle died, Lina was in a “devastated state.”

“She was sobbing and like, saying that they honestly don’t have anything to eat. They were surviving off of a date for, like, the day,” he said.

“Then they’re just drinking, she called it sewage water, but unsanitary water because there’s just no infrastructure left in Gaza.”

Communications are spotty in Gaza, and Marcus says they’ve only been able to speak to Lina and Ismail intermittently during the war. They only found out that Ismail had died when Lina posted about it on Facebook. 

Marcus says it appears his uncle’s heart gave out after months of malnutrition.

“He just passed from something that’s so preventable,” he said.

Now Lina — who had hoped to continue her education in Canada — is all alone.

She doesn’t qualify under the visa program, which only applies to the parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, spouses or siblings of Canadians. 

“She has no living family members in Gaza anymore,” Marcus said. “We don’t even know how her living situation is.” 

Annie O’Dell, the family’s lawyer, says she’s applied to bring Lina to Canada on humanitarian grounds, but said it’s “such a discretionary process that they could easily say no.”

Sawsan, meanwhile, is begging the Canadian government to have mercy on her niece. 

“I hope I can bring her here, please,” Sawsan told The Canadian Press through tears. “I lost my brother, and she’s all that we have now.”

With files from Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press. Interview with Marcus Karashuli produced by Chris Harbord

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