Updated: May 19, 2017
Elena and I have been together — constantly — since she fled for her life from Russia in 2006. She has been kept stateless (a convention refugee) for 11 years, by Canada Immigration and Citizenship (CIC) incompetence, or possibly, contempt. Lately, CIC incompetence has resulted in the complete loss of Elena’s international travel and identity documentation; effectively stranding both of us — I refuse to abandon her, undocumented and homeless in a foreign country, or anywhere for that matter. We refuse to be torn apart. We are desperate for help.
I am Canadian. I was born in Canada. I grew up in Calgary.
Elena is a Russian, convention refugee, asylum granted in May 2010, Vancouver, BC, (3 years after arriving by sailboat in Victoria, BC,). As a lesbian, her life is threatened in Russia at all levels: society, family, state.
Elena and I met online in 2005.
February 16, 2006, Kiev, Ukraine: we met in person. Elena had to effect an elaborate plan to escape her family, boyfriend, and coworkers in Ivanovo, Russia, and get to Kiev.
March 1, 2006, Kiev, Ukraine: Elena’s parents tracked her from Ivanovo (250 km east of Moscow) to Kiev. We were ambushed, attacked and beaten. They kidnapped Elena (an architect, 27 years old at the time) and beat her in front of amused onlookers (and security) in a McDonald’s restaurant. During the assault, Elena’s mother stole her passport. They intended to take their adult daughter back to Russia to have her treated for lesbianism in a mental hospital, or simply silenced.
We escaped into Kiev and went into hiding. Her mother had made it clear, we would be hunted down. This was corroborated by police officers. A detective feared for our lives, adding that people like us (LGBT) didn’t live long in Ukraine.
At the Canadian Embassy in Kiev, the vice consul agreed we were in grave danger. She offered help, advice, and use of the Embassy address for a contact point. The vice consul felt we had a strong refugee claim for Elena, if we could reach Canadian soil. However, because Elena’s passport had been stolen, and she had been attacked by Russians in Ukraine, AND she was not Canadian, there was nothing the vice consul or Canada could do for her. As a Canadian citizen, I was warned to evacuate Ukraine for my own safety. The consulate would help me do that. I turned down the offer, I wasn’t going to leave Elena behind. I was her only hope.
We fled Kiev via taxi, using fake identities, for Odessa, Ukraine 600 km south. While hiding in Odessa, a friend, in Russia, got Elena’s passport from her mother and spirited it out of Russia to us in Ukraine.
April 2006, we fled Odessa, Ukraine, for southeast Turkey. Elena’s mother reported, to Russian officials, that Elena’s passport was stolen and being used fraudulently, and that her daughter was a threat to herself and others. It made Elena’s passport worthless. Turkish officials were soon aware of our situation, ready to get anything they could from us, sex, money. The situation was dire. I maxed a LOC (line of credit) against my house in British Columbia to purchase a sailboat out of charter. We had no other route of escape: the only way home to Canada was, for us, by sea. Elena had never seen the sea. I’d only occasional, day-sailed on a small boat with friends in protected waters.
June 2006, we left Turkey in the sailboat, prepared for up to a year at sea without landing. No country would let us land. We were prepared to go around Cape Horn if access to the Panama Canal was denied. Somehow we outran officials, pirates, crooks, people smugglers, storms and bad luck and we got to the BC coast. We did stop for one week in the Canary Islands (a friendly agent looked the other way because the boat was pretty much wrecked, we had no food or water, and we were really going to die). Panamanian officials let us through the canal. It was then a nearly non-stop voyage, hundreds of miles offshore, north to Canada’s west coast in the middle of winter. There are no movies, no paintings, no songs… nothing, that can describe the seas we survived in this small fiberglass boat. And almost nobody knew we were out there, or cared. We did it to be together.
April 2007, The Canadian border patrol and immigration agents were astonished when we showed up alive, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Elena was treated like royalty by immigration agents, and even a CSIS agent. Our photos and story made us minor celebrities in the sailing world for our 15 minutes of fame. Elena was taken in as a client at the local immigrant and refugee center, and streamed into Canada’s refugee system. We had no idea what was going to happen, but we were together.
We were assured the refugee system was the only way to go; that there was no other way to prevent Elena’s deportation back to Russia. We put our trust in Canada, my country, my government – our home. Elena’s immigration lawyer submitted her refugee claim and we were promised a hearing with a Refuge Protection Division judge within 8 months.
A year went by, and nothing… the lawyer made inquiries… nothing. Then 2 years. Nearly 3 years later the lawyer gave up. We were on our own. Elena was still in limbo, still at threat of deportation to Russia. Emotionally we were wrecks. That and the financial burden of the ordeal lost us my home. We moved onto the very sailboat we’d used as a life-raft and kept waiting. Finally we appealed to our Member of Parliament, who discovered that Elena’s case file had been somehow ‘misplaced’ for years. We were overjoyed. Elena would finally be given a refugee hearing.
May 2010, We couldn’t afford a lawyer by then, so we prepared our case (a six inch stack of documents) ourselves. The judge was moved to tears. Elena was recognized as a convention refugee, without question.
September 2011, after multiple, mysterious screw-ups and delays, Elena was granted Permanent Residence in Canada.
January 2012, Elena was granted a refugee travel document (4.5 years after landing). By then we had lost everything but the sailboat we escaped with, and each other.
– – – – – – – –
We spent nearly six years in Victoria, most of it afloat in the harbor, where Elena took up the fight with boat-people and downtown residents, for safety, recognition, rights, and a clean environment. She worked closely with government and citizen groups, trying to protect and preserve downtown Victoria, the harbor, and its residents. She was well known to various provincial boards, and worked closely with the Victoria city council. She worked hard, she gave a lot. But Elena was learning the hard way, how business fights dirty, and always wins. The harder she tried to fight for the boat people and the environment, the harder business interests (and the Harbor Authority itself) fought to eliminate the boat people and pander to industrial and commercial interests. It meant hurting the very community she tried to help. Elena was desolate, demoralized.
So, when party-boys with so called “Hollywood” connections-to-connections, promised a “movie deal” — if we got ourselves to Los Angeles, we decided to go. We wanted to sail around North America and Los Angeles was on the way! It was summer, a tiny weather window allowed us to sail down the US west coast, if we missed it we’d be trapped for another year. Elena applied for Canadian citizenship so she could have a passport, and protections and rights, just like a regular person. In the meantime, to facilitate travel around North America, the USA consulate granted her a US B-2 visa in her refugee travel document. It was a temporary measure. We trusted that my government would grant Elena Canadian citizenship in due course.
That was 5 years ago. During those 5 years we have been stateless, homeless, in limbo, held hostage in Mexico, through two hurricanes, and countless storms — psychological and meteorological. Elena wrote and passed the citizenship test more than 3 years ago, then nothing.
February 2015, Elena was required to complete a residence questionnaire for Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). She completed, and returned it to CIC (with supporting materials), then nothing.
October 2015, a CIC officer informed Elena that she did not meet the residency requirements because her refugee hearing had been delayed: the time she spent in Canada didn’t count. She had one month to appeal before he rejected her application. Another lawyer was hired and the appeal was prepared and submitted on time. A Citizenship Judge rejected the application because Elena’s appeal was missing and another applicant’s documents accompanied Elena’s file instead of hers.
April 2016, after a lot of noise and lawyer bills, the error was admitted, and the decision was overturned. Elena’s application for citizenship has since been sent to the Minister for review… since then… nothing.
CIC REFUSAL TO RENEW ELENA’S REFUGEE TRAVEL DOCUMENT
October 2016, our sailboat was hit by hurricane Matthew. Delays due to repairs and climatic conditions meant Elena’s temporary Canadian refugee travel document (like a passport for stateless people) would expire in a few months and needed to be renewed. The expiring travel document and all required original identity documents were sent to CIC for the travel document renewal. We followed instructions for the renewal (verbal via phone with Passport Canada, on the application materials, and online). We were told the processing time would be 20 days.
20 days later, nothing. Told by Passport Canada, CIC can take up to 30 days and to go away.
30 days later, nothing. More phone calls to Passport Canada produced the same result — no record of their receipt of the documents or a file being initiated. A UPS Courier investigator confirmed that the documents were received by Passport Canada in Gatineau, Quebec on Oct. 25, 2016 and signed for. Passport Canada phone staff speculated, Elena’s documents and application were lost. Elena is now completely without ANY official international identity or travel documentation.
January 2017, missing travel document renewal application mysteriously shows up in the snail-mail. Elena’s application had been rejected by CIC saying she only included ONE photo instead of two. How lame do they think we are? Not only did CIC make up a spurious claim, they took 2.5 months to reject the application. So much time had passed that Elena’s travel document had since expired. Elena’s freedom of movement and travel has been effectively taken from her.
February (early), 2017 – contacted Passport Canada for instructions on renewing Elena’s (now expired) travel document from outside of Canada and with a notary in lieu of a guarantor. Guarantor in first (failed) attempt had retired and was ineligible to act as a professional guarantor. Passport Canada approved the process and faxed the “in lieu of guarantor form.” Completely new package and materials (including photos) sent via courier.
February (late), 2017 – Application for travel document rejected. An expired permanent resident card had been included as additional identification material (as indicated on the application form and in an enclosed letter). It was unnecessary for the application, but CIC used it as an excuse to reject the renewal. The actual, required document (for proof of Permanent Residence) that was included was valid and not expired. The correct (indicated) document was likely not even looked at. Application summarily rejected.
March 1, 2017 – expired Permanent Resident Card removed from the application package (to keep from confusing anyone) and package sent back to Passport Canada.
April 4, 2017 – Application for travel document rejected. Reason given: Travel documents not issued to anyone outside of Canada. To reiterate, this was the third attempt, if this was the case they could have said something before Elena had been completely stripped of the right to travel or board a plane, so we could have gone to Canada to apply for the renewal. No information about not being able to apply from outside of Canada could be found. Passport Canada staff told us many times that applying from outside of Canada was not only possible, they provided the forms to facilitate us doing so.
May 4, 2017 – Return address outside of Canada scratched out. Application mailed from within Canada.
May 16, 2017 – Application for travel document rejected. Reason given: They couldn’t find the credit card payment information. Once again, like how stupid do they think we really are?
May 18, 2017 – Credit card information scratched out and cashier’s check included with application. Application sent.
CIC has told Elena to go to a Canadian consulate for papers to get back into Canada so she can apply for a travel document. The Canadian consulates have said, in writing that because Elena is not a Canadian citizen, and although she is with her Canadian spouse of 11 years, they cannot nor will they help her. The emergency services arm of Global Affairs Canada (the consulates are part of this department – used to be Foreign Affairs) have confirmed that there is absolutely nothing they can do for Elena and the responsibility lies with the CIC and Passport Canada.
If something doesn’t happen very soon, we will be forced to sea, to endeavor a 2200 km, non-stop, run north to Canadian waters to attempt landing at a port of entry.
Crossing USA illegally to attempt a land crossing into Canada is ridiculous, illegal, and insanely reckless on the off chance, CIC will issue the travel document or perhaps even citizenship to Elena. It’s been so many years, Elena’s pretty much given up on Citizenship. Life is short and precious and we refuse to let this craven weirdness poison it.
Canadian Border Protection Services have told us, by phone, that whether they let Elena into Canada is up to the individual agent, and she could very well be returned to USA if that is where she approached the Canadian border from. The safer way into Canada is from within its territory, be that a seaport or airport, and since Elena can’t get onto a commercial flight without ID… well, it’s going to be another long sailboat trip… and for what?
Sure, we can go to heroic lengths to get back into Canada, but for what? After what we’ve been through I’m not even sure I like being Canadian. I used to be so blissfully proud of Canada. What an idiot. We need a country to call home, a place to be safe and together, we need to be treated like human beings, we want to share in the life of a vibrant, strong, proud country.
Nowhere is perfect, and I know this is just going to make everyone crazy-indignant, but the reality is, no matter where we’ve been, it’s USA, that has been the most accepting, generous, kind and truly caring country we’ve been in, through, above, underground, running from, up, down, or sideways. It’s been a long time, we want to come home.