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Avoiding religious persecution at Christmas

Family and supporters join to battle deportation

While most of us were lined up in stores Christmas shopping, about 70 members of various faith groups from the Chinese, Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities lined the sidewalks picketing the federal Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship’s office in Toronto in support of religious freedom, Dec. 21.

Organized by One Free World International (OFWI), which has branches in 28 countries, including Canada, many people rallied in support of the Ogunkoya family from Welland, who are facing deportation back to Nigeria. The Ogankoya family came to Canada to avoid religious persecution because they converted from Muslim to Christianity in this native country.

The mother, Morufat, 46, claims she fled the West African nation because her father, a Muslim cleric connected to the Muslim state, has threatened her life and those of her family several times. Her battle now lies with trying to prove she is in imminent danger to Immigration Canada, which has issued a deportation order.  (See previous article here.)
Majed El Shafie, president and founder of OFWI, the non-profit group that protects the rights of religious freedom, said it was important to “show support from different religious groups,” at the rally. Since the recent federal election, there was a Cabinet shuffle and The Honourable, Marco Mendicino, has just been appointed the new minister of Immigration, after being elected in 2015 as an MP for the Eglington-Lawrence riding in Toronto.  

El Shafie said OFWI obtained a new lawyer to assist the Ogunkoya family. The organization has also sent Minister Mendicino an official letter to make him aware of this case, and to use his powers to allow this model family to remain in Canada. However, El Shafie said parliament doesn’t resume until Jan. 27 and he isn’t expecting any decision to be determined in the interim. El Shafie plans to present the minister with a petition signed by many people in support of the family, which is still being circulated through the OFWI website.

Originally, the petition circulated by Rose City Kids in Welland obtained 35,000 signatures, but that has since grown since it was posted on the One Free World’s website, said Hoffele.

A deportation order was issued to the family in November, after an appeal for asylum was denied. However, El Shafie said the family has since gone “underground.” When asked if that was the best solution, El Shafie said: “They have no other option. They gave us no choice, from what we see. They either go into hiding or go to Nigeria to be killed. They are at least safe now.”

El Shafie hopes the minister will overturn its department’s decision, as another application has been submitted to appeal on “humanitarian and compassionate grounds. The Minister of Immigration and The Ministry of Public Safety have the power to stop the deportation order while the application is in the process and let them be free in the meantime. This is a very, very sad situation that the young kids have no future,” he said referring to the Ogunkoya children: Rejoice, 9, Hephzibah, 14 and Victor 16. 

Debbie Hoffele, a friend of the Ogunkoya family, who was at the rally, said since the family went underground the children were pulled from school. Morufat had a job at Embassy Suites in Niagara Falls to support her family, but since the deportation order was issued, the government revoked the work permit and any access to medicine, which puts pressure on them to leave. Hoffele is unaware if an actual date for removal was established, or has been established as yet. Victor also worked last summer and has received awards from Notre Dame Secondary School for being an exemplary student. Now the family is forced to live in the basements of people’s homes and subsist on charity and donations from church groups and other sympathetic individuals. 

According to El Shafie, Nigeria is one of the top 10 countries on the list of several religious rights organizations like Open Doors that monitor the persecution of Christians. While it may not be experiencing a large-scale civil war like Syria, Nigeria is “an extremist country no matter where you are,” he said. His comment was in reference to Immigration Canada’s suggestion to return the Ogankoya family to Port Harcourt in Nigeria where there is significant population of Christians. However, Morufat has told immigration Port Harcourt is only two hours away from where she resided, and she could be easily be detected by the government as soon as her children register for school.

“Christians celebrating Christmas get attacked all the time there. Keep in mind that converting to Christianity is a huge crime and her father is an extremist cleric,” pointed out El Shafie. That government “turns a blind eye to crimes done to Christians,” he added. The biggest problem in Nigeria is there is no separation between religion and state, which is similar in his native country of Egypt. Nigeria is predominately Muslim, and there is no recourse for crimes committed to Christians. “I don’t trust Nigeria,” he said, and the biggest problem in Canada is that the judges aren’t aware of the atrocities committed in this western African country.“

Prior to being president of OFWI, El Shafie was a lawyer in Egypt, but was protesting against his government and the acts of extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. He has released a book titled: Freedom Fighter: One Man’s Fight for One Free World describing his similar experiences, including death threats and torture, for converting to Christianity. His book also details his involvement with assisting refugees from many faiths from other countries. Residing in Toronto, El Shafie has led delegations to parliament and met with several ministers to assist refugees. He received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for his efforts. 

When asked if he had experience with previous cases from Nigeria, El Shafie said, “Of course. There are two issues that are prevalent from refugees there: freedom of religious persecution and female genital mutilation.”

“My point is that we’re in Canada and we are the temple of human rights. We’re a proud nation, but now we are deporting this model family?”

From Immigration Canada’s perspective and regulations, Morufat's family did not enter Canada through the proper channels. She originally obtained a visa to travel to the U.S. in 2016. She didn’t seek asylum there and returned to Nigeria. Then she obtained a visa for her children in 2017 to go to the U.S., but “after Donald Trump’s aggressive attitudes” towards refugees she crossed into Canada via Lacolle, Quebec, which is not an official point of entry, he said. However, Hoffele said Morufat chose that route “because of all the stuff she heard in the news; she was afraid.”  El Shafie added during that time, “there were “a flood of refugees crossing in Quebec,” noting that Canadian Immigration was aware there was a refugee crisis in the U.S.  

While Canada’s immigration rules do not accept third party refugees, meaning those that have been denied in the U.S. to come to Canada, Hoffele said, “When you’re afraid for your life and clinging to your family,” she understands why Morufat would try and bring her children here. Besides, “not everyone knows how the system works.” Officially the Ogunkoya family has never been denied refugee status in the U.S., her visas for the U.S. have since expired and she can’t return there.

“I don’t know if she has a plan B,” said Hoffele, who is praying for the family to remain in Canada.
In the meantime, Faith Welland Church, 380 South Pelham Street, is holding a fundraiser/raffle to raise money for the family’s support and legal fees on Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. There will be free admittance, a 50/50 draw, food for sale and performances by Life Song and Jennifer Lynn and her band. The video from One Free World will be shown, and copies of El Shafie’s book will be available for sale. 

El Shafie wants all interested persons to keep this family safe and in Canada by visiting the website and sign the online petition.

“They’re the kind of people we would want as Canadian citizens,” said Hoffele, who questions: “Why is the Canadian government doing this?”