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Only a few dozen out of Gaza have made it to Canada. Some say they’re struggling just to get by

It’s been seven months since Nisreen El-Khalidy fled Gaza with her mother and one of her siblings. According to the 23-year-old, her brothers, sister, nieces and nephews she was forced to leave behind are either stuck in the region, have been killed, or are injured or missing.

But she said she’s not only fighting to bring the rest of her family to Canada — she’s fighting just to get by here.

“Here in Canada, it’s so hard to continue,” she said. “It’s so hard to do anything.”

El-Khalidy and her family were living in Gaza when the current war in the region broke out on Oct. 7.

Hamas-led militants launched an attack on Israel that killed some 1,200, by Israeli counts, taking about another 250 hostage. Since then, Israel’s full-scale invasion of Gaza has killed over 36,000, according to Gaza health officials, and has left much of the population facing catastrophic famine.

El-Khalidy is one of the lucky few able to leave because she has family in Canada. But like many others, she arrived with no belongings and no money. Her family is sharing a house with another.

She says she’s struggled to find work, despite having multiple degrees.

WATCH | A Hamilton, Ont., man describes issues with Canada’s reunification program: 

Canada’s reunification program for Palestinians has been slow and discriminatory, Hamilton man says

2 days ago

Duration 2:28

Rani Hemaid advocated for the creation of a family reunification program for Palestinian Canadians and their family members in Canada. Six months after the creation of said program, Hemaid says the program is slow and discriminatory.

Since the war began, the federal government has taken on special measures to get Canadians or those with Canadian ties out of Gaza, through the assisted departures program, ongoing since October, or the family visa program, launched in January.

But now that some are arriving, it’s taken months to access the resources offered by the federal government: work and study permit eligibility and three months of limited health coverage.

‘This may not even be a safe haven for us’

El-Khalidy isn’t the only one.

Naaheed Siddique and Naureen Arshad in Pickering, Ont., volunteer their time to help recent arrivals from Gaza resettle here. They say almost every family they’ve been in contact with is struggling.

“They cannot work, they cannot go to school, they have no health care,” said Arshad.

Many Palestinians who come here have urgent medical needs, said Siddique. They end up on the hook for hundreds of dollars in hospital bills, because some aren’t aware they have temporary health coverage on arrival until it’s already expired.

In Ontario, newcomers can’t get a health card unless they have a valid work permit and are working full time. Many Palestinians are waiting on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), which is still dealing with COVID-19-related backlogs, to process their applications for work and study permits, she said.

Naaheed Siddique, left, and Naureen Saeed both volunteer their time to help Palestinians resettle in Canada.
Naaheed Siddique, left, and Naureen Arshad both volunteer their time to help Palestinians resettle in Canada. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

It’s a frustrating reality for the very few who have managed to get out of Gaza and into the country since the war began. IRCC confirmed that as of last week, just 41 people have made it to Canada under the extended family visa program.

“They come and they realize that, ‘No, this may not even be a safe haven for us, because we still have so many hurdles,'” Siddique said.

“It makes me, as a human being, feel really sad.”

Both Siddique and Arshad are just some of the volunteers who have taken it upon themselves to help Palestinian newcomers find housing, sort through the permanent residency process, and provide food and grocery vouchers.

They’ve even helped pay bills.

Urgent needs with no health coverage

Dr. Afsheen Mazhar, a family physician based out of Hamilton, Ont., has also been trying to help.

On top of running her own practice, Mazhar has been spending her off time meeting with Palestinian families who don’t have health coverage, but need to see a doctor. 

Dr. Afsheen Mazhar is a family physician based in Hamilton, Ont. She's been providing medical care in her off-time to newly arrived Palestinians without health coverage.
Dr. Afsheen Mazhar is a family physician based in Hamilton, Ont. She’s been providing medical care in her off time to newly arrived Palestinians without health coverage. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

“There was one family whose child had an ear infection, their three-year old, and this is a family who is unfortunately surviving on grocery vouchers, right? So they don’t even have money for Advil, let alone going to see a physician,” she said.

Mazhar described another family on the hook for a $550 hospital visit after a child broke their leg.

The doctor has met with other families who are dealing with significant trauma from the impacts of the ongoing war. In some cases, children have begun to regress in their development, with kids between the ages of four and six wetting their beds, she said.

Other patients have been relying on drug samples to actually take medication, said Mazhar.

‘They should not have that problem’: Immigration minister

It’s not a problem that people out of Gaza should be facing on arrival, Immigration Minister Marc Miller told CBC at a news conference in Toronto on Monday. 

Man standing at a podium with Canadian flags behind him.
Immigration Minister Marc Miller says Palestinian newcomers are entitled to supports once they arrive in Canada. (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press)

“People are entitled to work for us. They’re entitled to federal interim health [care] for a three-month period on landing,” he said.

“[Given] there have been relatively few people that have gotten here, we would probably work directly with those groups and making sure that if there are problems in the system, that we get them ironed out quickly.

WATCH | The only way the Abusharar family got out of Gaza: 

Bribery was this family’s ticket from Gaza to Canada

3 days ago

Duration 2:53

Despite having Canadian relatives and approval from the government, bribery was the only way for the Abusharar family to get out of Gaza. They spoke to CBC News about their arduous journey and the agony of leaving so many behind.

“They should not have that problem on landing.” 

It’s a promise Siddique and Arshad are hopeful the federal government urgently fulfils, but that neither of them are counting on.

The two are planning on starting their own non-profit dedicated to assisting Palestinians newcomers in need. 

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