Roksana Hajrizi speaks to a crowd at an Ottawa demonstration about her mother, Celina Urbanowicz, who has been living in Canada without status for over 23 years. Photo: Kieran Delamont

by Kieran Delamont

Officially, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claims that Canada “stands with people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes.” The reality, however, is that many of the same immigration practices that get condemned elsewhere are actively practiced by Canadian border officials domestically. Children are held in detention centres, federal police patrol the border, and families are regularly separated by selective deportations. Case in point: the family of Celina Urbanowicz.

Urbanowicz arrived in Canada in 1997 with her husband, Ismet Hajrizi, as refugees fleeing the Yugoslav Wars and the persecution of Roma people. Two decades later, she lost her husband to Canadian immigration officials. He was picked up and sent to Kosovo last June, with “not even given a chance to say goodbye,” says Urbanowicz. 

“Every month, you know what I’m feeling? Every month my heart beats like it’s broke. I’m scared.”

For much of the last 23 years, the Ottawa family lived without status, consistently slipping through the cracks of the Canadian immigration system.  They fled war-torn Yugoslavia in 1997, which no longer even exists as a country one could even be sent back to. Several of Urbanowicz’s younger children were born in Canada and are not at risk of deportation. 

As members of an oppressed group, they expect persecution if they are deported to one of the successor states to the former Yugoslavia. 

These fears seem well-founded, given what has befallen Hajrizi since being deported to Kosovo. Urbanowicz’s husband reportedly lives in hiding, inside a garage,  because life is not always safe for Roma Muslims there. Urbanowicz says, “He is not a citizen of Kosovo. He was Serbian Roma. They sent him to the wrong country!”

On February 12, a rally put on by Urbanowicz’s daughters, Camila and Roksana Hajrizi, sought to call attention to their mother’s plight. 

“The deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, back in 2019, made a statement and said she vowed to never let such atrocities happen to Roma people ever again,” said Roksana, who has become something of a regular feature on Parliament Hill. She has staged protests and, at one point, a frigid winter camp-out to draw attention to her mother’s cause.

“Today, I hope that the deputy PM stands by her statement and intervenes in my mother’s case,” Roksana says. “Family separation, persecution, and marginalization will kill her.” 

Urbanowicz feels like she could be picked up by immigration officials at any moment. She’s not currently under a deportation order, but if it decides to, the government would send her to Poland — another country where Roma people face discrimination. There would be a cruel, but illustrative, irony to it — two partners, each sent to the wrong country by an immigration system which so often likes to talk of its own tolerance. 

This talk of tolerance is something the family takes seriously. They have genuine affection for Canada and the Trudeau Liberal Party — and the values it claims to represent, like multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance. At the same time, they know better than most that those values can ring hollow in practice. 

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he said families have to stay together,” says Urbanowicz,  referring to the time when news of families being separated at the southern U.S.-Mexico border first started making headlines. (Of course, in perfectly Trudeau-esque fashion, Trudeau actually  hedged on it for as long as he could before condemning the separations.) “What about my family? After 23 years, they leave me to stay here, and now they want to deport me to a country where, for the last 30 years, I’ve had nobody left.” 

To be clear, life for Roma people isn’t always great here, either. In 2013 for example, the walking id of the Canadian right known as Ezra Levant called Roma culture “synonymous with swindlers” in a Sun TV screed, and said “their chief economy is theft and begging.” (Levant issued a rare apology after the Roma Community Centre in Toronto filed hate speech complaints with the CRTC, Alberta Law Society, and Toronto police.)

Family separation is also not an uncommon experience for those interacting with the Canadian immigration system. In contrast to the compassionate, tolerant system our politicians so often espouse, Canada’s immigration and justice system has shown itself capable of being harsh and unflinching.

Last year, for example, a judge had to order the CBSA to halt plans to deport both parents of a seven-year-old boy without him. The year before that, government ministers had to step in after stories were published by Global News about the Montoya family, who were (rather cruelly) set to be deported on Christmas eve. And in November 2019, Michelle Messina committed suicide in Québec jail, rather than face extradition to the US for the crime of “kidnapping” her children  after they ran away from her abusive ex-husband. 

The family of Urbanowicz lives with the consequences of this harsh and uncaring legal system. It is a constant feature in their lives. 

“I’m scared. Every day, every night,” Urbanowicz says. “I’m not sleeping. I’m scared of immigration.”

Yet when government ministers make bold pronouncements and promises for the camera, the family is inclined to believe them, or wants to, at least. For all the complicating features of their immigration status, Urbanowicz and her daughters have a pretty simple ask of the federal government: be as moral as you constantly say you are. 

The family says they plan to continue fighting for their mother’s case. For now, though, life remains hard. Every month, Urbanowicz has to meet with immigration officials. Every month, she fears that she will be arrested — just like her husband was. 

“Every month, you know what I’m feeling?” Urbanowicz says. “Every month my heart beats like it’s broke. I’m scared.”

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