Georgian refugee family waiting to resettle in Canada told to stay in their current location: Ukraine

It was a bittersweet moment when Beka Lomadze and her older sister Anna got their visas to resettle in Canada from Ukraine in 2019, but the siblings were hopeful their parents and two younger brothers would follow suit in the near future.

Those family members have lived since 2012 in limbo in Ukraine, where they got stuck while en route to Belgium, in which they had intended to seek asylum from religious persecution by Orthodox Christians in their native Georgia.

With the tension between Russia and Ukraine rising in the region in recent months, Lomadze and his sister were praying that the rest of their family could join them in Toronto before the war started.

In early February, a letter finally came from the Canadian visa post in Kyiv. To their dismay, immigration officials said they intended to refuse the family’s refugee sponsorship application because there’s a “durable solution,” given that they’ve already lived in Ukraine for 10 years. The family has until March 4 to file a submission to change Ottawa’s mind.

Now in a country at war, the idea that they have a “durable solution” in Ukraine sounds even more out of place to the family than it had before.

The pending refusal of the case has baffled members of the Anglican church and Georgian communities that had applied to sponsor the whole family — also including Lomadze’s parents Mamuka and Natela, both 49, and that couple’s younger children Nikoloz, 11, and Mate, 8 — to Canada in 2016.

“It doesn’t make sense that the family left Georgia because of persecution and that’s an acceptable rationale for letting two of the grown children come, but not the rest of the family,” said John Amanatides of the Church of the Resurrection, which also sponsored Lomadze, 25, and Anna, 27.

“At a time of war, where you are a guest in a country, it’s even harder for someone like that to survive. These Georgians are guests in Ukraine trying to survive in the midst of a war.”

Lomadze, a software programmer, said the family is very close and he and Anna are like second parents to Nikoloz and Mate because they are quite a bit older than them.

“This is so stressful for all of us and we cry a lot. Anna and I am grateful that we are safe in Canada, but we cannot feel safe if the rest of our family are still in danger and suffering,” Lomadze said.

On Friday, the Russian forces bombed the Ukrainian military base in Cherkasy, five minutes’ drive from the apartment building where his family lives.

The family’s situation in Ukraine has long been precarious. Both of the parents were professional musicians — he played French horn and she’s a pianist — and had difficulties finding jobs because they only speak Georgian and Russian.

They had been fined several times for staying in the country illegally and also experienced discrimination in Ukraine both as non-Orthodox Christians and simply as foreigners, said family friend Natalia Bakradze, who also fled Georgia’s religious persecution to come to Canada. (The Lomadzes say they are non-denominational Christians punished for refusal to conform to Orthodox rituals.)

The Immigration Department said there is no final decision on the family’s application as officials are still waiting for the Lomadzes’ response to the department’s letter from early February.

“Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has been made aware of complex cases of refugees who are seeking resettlement to Canada, but are currently in Ukraine,” the department told the Star in an email.

“Every step along the way can bring a unique challenge depending on the individual’s circumstances. Canada is working to bring as many vulnerable refugees as possible to safety in Canada as quickly as possible.”

Although the family has been granted permanent residence in Ukraine because of Mate’s citizenship by birth, Bakradze said that’s on paper only: the family continues to experience serious hardships in day-to-day life.

For example, unless they own a property in Ukraine, they can’t obtain a propiskaor domicile registration, to open a bank account, to go to school, to get a job or a driver’s license.

“They are considered second- or third-class people in Ukraine. The discrimination and persecution will increase in war,” said Bakradze, who also fears for the physical safety of Mamuka and Natela because they can only communicate with others there in Russian.

“If life is already difficult for Ukrainians, it’s even more difficult for this family.”

Alex Hauschildt, operations director of the Anglican United Refugee Alliance, said the Lomadze family’s application was split into three applications because both Beka and Anna had aged out and were now adults, but all the applications were based on the family’s identical circumstances in Georgia and Ukraine .

He said the community is particularly perplexed by the apparent refusal of the Lomadzes’ sponsorship application when Ottawa has since January introduced a string of special measures to expedite visa and immigration processing for people with a primary residence in Ukraine.

“The government was already acknowledging that it wasn’t safe for people to be there,” said Hauschildt. “You have a church, a sponsorship agreement holder and a community group who are all willing and ready to welcome this family.

“This is the perfect setup for the family to be happy, healthy, productive and successful Canadians.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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