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Families awaiting deportation face emotional roller-coaster that can lead to ‘chronic stress’

The prospect of being deported has caused immense stress for the Aboizneid and Alsaleh families, even though the dates for the Hamilton residents leaving Canada have been deferred. A child psychologist and associate prof at the University of Calgary says the "threat hanging over your head" can greatly impact families facing deportation.

9,369 people in Ontario alone are on Canada Border Service Agency's removal list

Family at a dinner table.

Over the summer, things have been changing for the better for Sarah Alsaleh.

The newlywed received permanent resident status in August. She's also expecting again following two miscarriages in the past year that she believes were partially caused by the stress of her deportation order.

"I will be, in September, three months pregnant," she said.

In June, Alsaleh, 25, with eight members of her family — including three children under age 10 — were served deportation orders that required that they be sent to Jordan in mid-July.

Alsaleh said she was born and raised in Qatar and has never lived in Jordan, although the family has Jordanian citizenship. Her father told CBC Hamilton the family is Palestinian.

But while Alsaleh's date has been cancelled because of her permanent resident status, lifting a weight off her shoulders, the rest of her family faces a deferred but still looming deportation order. They're among the 9,369 people in Ontario on Canada Border Service Agency's (CBSA) removal list.

"It's just a temporary deferral," Alsaleh said. "I'm still very scared for my family."

Deportation puts kids through 'prolonged period of stress'

In the winter, Alsaleh's parents — Yasir Alsaleh and Ana Marecek — said they were told they had to bring her 10-year-old sister, Lujian, and her three-year-old niece, Haya, to a CBSA appointment.

While at the appointment, Alsaleh said Lujian cried and begged the agent to not remove her family.

"Canada recognizes the importance of promoting and safeguarding the rights of children, both in Canada and abroad," Maria Ladouceur, spokesperson for the CBSA, said in an email.

Ladouceur said the agency works "to ensure that decisions on behalf of children are made in consideration of their best interests."

But the CBSA visit along with the stress of the deportation, according to Alsaleh, have had a serious impact on her young sister's mental health.

"She needs the therapy still because she went through a lot."

According to one mental health professional, the "chronic stress" from a deportation order can be lasting, even when the order itself has been deferred.

John McLennan is a child psychologist, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and the editor of the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (CACAP). In May, he wrote a column on the impacts of deportation on children.

"We're all exposed to short-term stress — our bodies are sort of adapted to that — but it's the prolonged period of deportation I think is a particular worry," he said, adding cases can go on for months or even years.

Adolescents struggle with mental health, school

Alsaleh's teenage sister, Lana, is friends with two other teenage girls facing deportation — Samina and Sadin Aboizneid.

Originally from the Palestinian territories, the family of six immigrated first to Chile, then to Canada where the youngest child was born. The family was deported to Chile and then returned to Hamilton in 2019.

In January, a CBC Hamilton reporter visited the Aboizneids and spoke to the three eldest children, who shared their concerns for their family and how the deportation process has impacted their mental health.

Samira, 15, said that after the first deportation, "My mental health was completely ruined…. It sent me off into a depressive episode."

She's worried her younger brothers will experience the same issues.

Her older brother, Tariq, who is 18 but is considered a child in the family's applications with the CBSA, told CBC Hamilton in January that the family's previous deportation and second removal order made it difficult for him to focus on school.

"I was doing good in school," he said, adding he was getting 90s in his academic courses.

"But then they sent us back and it messed me up. It really dragged me down. I felt betrayed."

McLennan said this is a common issue with children and adolescents going through a family deportation.

"Going into a new situation with unknown housing, schooling, safety issues in another place — pulling apart your social network, when your family or school or community that you're linked with are all being removed at the same time — this compounding level of stress is certainly concerning."

'Threat hanging over your head'

McLennan said the chronic stress of family separation can greatly impact a child's mental health.

The Aboizneid family's youngest child, Wael, was born in Canada and has Canadian citizenship.

"[The CBSA] said leave him for adoption," his father told CBC Hamilton in January, adding the family has considered leaving their youngest with other family members who live in Canada.

McLennan said the mental health impact on children can begin before the removal order has even been enforced.

"The unknown of what's going to happen, the risk of being separated day after day after day, play a greater impact. You might say, 'Well, we haven't even separated them yet' — it's that threat hanging over your head."

"There's no good choice for the families in that situation," he said.

The CBSA told CBC Hamilton in an email that it "always considers the best interest of the child" when carrying out family removals, but McLennan said CACAP's stance is that response isn't enough.

"[The CBSA says], 'we're not separating families. We're saying the parent has to return because of their illegal entry or irregular entry, and they're free to take their children with them,'" McLennan said.

"What we've struggled with is how did you decide that this is, in any way, in the best interest of the child. We've never got a satisfactory response."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cara Nickerson is a journalist with the CBC's Ontario local news stations, primarily CBC Hamilton. She previously worked with Hamilton Community News. Cara has a special interest in stories that focus on social issues and community. Cara can be reached at cara.nickerson@cbc.ca.

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