GUELPH - Two Syrian refugee families have had their dream of a new life in Guelph shattered after their applications were rejected at the last stage.
Those families, and possibly three others, were near the end of a nearly three-year process to come to Guelph under the federal government's Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program, which sees a local organization in Canada agree to sponsor a refugee applicant.
The families of Rajwa Kayali and Saad Yousef both escaped war in Syria and landed in temporary homes in Gulf countries.
Both wanted to come to Guelph.
Applications were filed by a Canadian sponsor they contacted and they had been interviewed at the Canadian embassies where they currently live.
Money was raised by their families and friends to help cover the required funds to be placed in trust to help with expenses for the first year.
That money was sent to their Guelph sponsor.
The applicants, their spouses and their children (both are families of four) had even undergone medicals, one of the final steps before getting the green light to come to Canada.
But when their Guelph sponsor failed to provide proof to the federal government of that money being held in trust to assist with their resettlement, their applications were denied.
Both families say they were crushed.
“We thought that Canada would be our new start,” said Kayali, who along with her husband and two children is currently living in the United Arab Emirates. “Imagine how painful it was when we knew that our file was rejected."
“It’s very hard to all of us to even open the subject because we are trying to forget and heal our hearts.,” Kayali said via email.
The family of Saad Yousef, his wife and two children, have a similar story.
They currently live in a different Persian Gulf country after escaping war-torn Syria. They prefer it not be identified.
“We thought we were going to be able to start a new life. Then it was gone,” said Yousef.
The two families reached out to GuelphToday after seeing a story about their Guelph sponsor and a new business he was opening.
Yousef and Kayali both say that man, Walaa Allaf, still hasn’t returned thousands of dollars raised by family and friends for their applications.
That money is a requirement of the process and is supposed to be held in a trust account by the sponsor (Allaf, through his company Shokran Media Canada Inc.).
“A friend of mine told me about him and how Walaa is helping the Syrian refugees in finding a new home,” Yousef said. “The only problem was he does not have enough money to sponsor people so my friend started to raise the money.”
Yousef provided a copy of documents showing the money for his resettlement was at one point in a trust account at the Royal Bank in Downtown Guelph.
Kayali provided copies of bank drafts showing her family's money was also sent to Allaf.
Allaf did provide the government with proof of the funds being held in trust at the beginning of the process. But when the government asked for proof near the end of the process that it was still there, they weren’t given it.
“The sponsors did not provide the requested information. As such, I’m not satisfied that they continue to have the financial resources in order to satisfy the requirement and to demonstrate that they have sufficient financial resources to fulfill the settlement plan for the duration of the undertaking,” said a government rejection letter sent to Allaf and Yousef.
So what happened to their money? How did things go so wrong with the Kayali and Yousef families along with three other unnamed families Allaf admits also had their applications rejected for the same reason?
This is where it gets a little confusing.
First, Allaf says the Royal Bank “shut down all accounts related to citizens of certain countries,” including Syria, despite the fact the money was in the Royal Bank for several months. (Contacted by GuelphToday, RBC Canada said “for security and client privacy reasons, we’re unable to discuss the policies required for this particular situation.”)
Then, despite possibly being just weeks away from final approval for the refugees he was sponsoring, Allaf said he became “exhausted” and “frustrated” with the entire process.
“I couldn’t help them. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t handle it anymore,” he said.
“If I want to disconnect from the sponsorship, I have the right to do so.”
True. But what he did next certainly wasn't part of the plan.
Allaf said he gave the money to a trusted and dear friend to set up trust accounts at a different bank. Which he claims that friend did.
But he said that friend had to leave the country "for an emergency" and wasn’t around to provide the necessary proof of the trust funds to the government.
He would not name the friend, the other bank or the nature of the emergency. He had no explanation as to why he couldn't contact the friend.
Allaf said that friend is still out of the country and unable to return the funds and was unable to provide the government with the proof the money existed.
“I had to give it to a different person,” Allaf said. “The money was in his control. I hope to get it back off him.”
Allaf said he requested an extension from the federal government to give him time to get proof of the new account, but was only given one short extension.
The federal government said, at least in the Yousef case, Allaf was given three extensions, totalling six weeks.
It should also be noted that private sponsorships are only allowed through approved organizations.
“I never said that coming to Canada is guaranteed,” Allaf told GuelphToday. “I help a lot of people. I couldn’t help a lot …. Nothing is guaranteed.”
Allaf, himself a former Syrian refugee, has a strong and high profile reputation in Guelph for work he has done helping other refugee families both come to Canada and settle here.
He told GuelphToday he has sponsored “at least 10 families” and helped countless others, including a Congolese woman who recently came to Canada with a seriously ill baby.
He helped organize a book event for Syrian children in Guelph, produced a series of videos in Arabic to help refugees adjust to Canada and has been at the airport welcoming families as they arrive.
When he and a partner opened his restaurant Shawarma G on Speedvale Avenue last year, he told GuelphToday at the time that it would employ exclusively Syrian refugees.
Allaf wants to make it clear that he has been of help to many refugees.
“I could fill this entire place with people I have helped,” Allaf said, looking around the coffee shop during an interview.
He said he feels “extremely bad” about what happened and is working on repaying the families the money they sent. He has already paid back Kayali’s family most of the money they sent, while Yousef is still owed over $20,000.
Allaf says he is in the process of paying Yousef back.
He also says he has fully reimbursed the other three unnamed families.
He brought along Kayali’s brother-in-law, Mohamed Almawas, to the interview with GuelphToday to support the fact he has been paying back that family, adding that he even sold his car to help raise funds.
Yousef and Kayali provided Guelph today with text messages and voice messages left by Allaf.
Allaf also said he is working at trying to find new sponsors for the families and may have a church in Kitchener interested. He was asked to provide proof of that church's interest, but so far has not done so.
Kayali and Yousef said they may contact local police if they don’t get all their money back.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Béatrice Fénelon told GuelphToday that privately sponsored refugees do not need to pay for their sponsorship “and should never be asked to transfer money to a sponsor in Canada as part of their application or in return for the submission of an application.”
“The sponsor in Canada is responsible for providing the funds to support refugees in Canada for one year or until they become self-sufficient,” she said.
The federal government even has a warning on its refugee sponsorship information page telling refugees not to send money.
While she could not speak of these cases specifically for privacy reasons, Fénelon said suspected abuse of the process should be reported and it will be investigated, possibly by police.
Neither refugee family claims Allaf asked them directly for money.
The families raised the needed money with help from family and friends, which is acceptable.
Janet Dench is the Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a national non-profit umbrella organization that focuses on the rights of refugees, migrants and immigrants.
“It’s been a big concern of our organization, of our members,” Dench said of refugees that find themselves in situations like those of Kayali and Yousef: having applications rejected at the last minute through no fault of their own.
“It’s part of the nature of being a refugee. You’re in a desperate situation and very often people are forced to trust their lives in the hands of people that they don’t really know.”
One of the concerns of her organization is how sponsorships are terminated as a result of government concerns by the government, particularly when the process is far along, like the applications of Kayali and Yousef.
“To suddenly be terminated with no recourse available to the person is absolutely devastating,” Dench said.
“When they just tear up the application, there’s absolutely no regard to the impact that has to the people who are innocent of any wrongdoing but are simply the victims of some kind of abuse or neglect, whatever the case may be.”
Both the Kayali and Yousef families are still hopeful of one day coming to Canada, but are faced with the daunting task of finding a sponsor and the money in order to start the process over again.
Without a new sponsor, they have little recourse.
“The essence of the matter now is not about the amount of money left (owed), but about our dream and that of our children,” Kayali said.