An extraordinary saga of perseverance begun in the Middle East has had a happy conclusion in Canada. Three elderly Palestinian Christian refugees have been granted landed immigrant status, after well over five decades of hardship and disappointment.

AN EXTRAORDINARY SAGA of perseverance begun in the Middle East has had a happy conclusion in Canada. Three elderly Palestinian Christian refugees have been granted landed immigrant status, after well over five decades of hardship and disappointment.

Brothers Nabih Ayoub, 68, and Khalil Ayoub, 70, and the latter’s wife, Therese Boulos Haddad, 63, had taken sanctuary a year ago in the basement of Notre Dame de Grace Catholic Church in Montreal. They had been ordered deported back to Lebanon. Once in sanctuary, they were supported by a dedicated group of church members — who successfully lobbied to overturn
the deportation order.

CBC.ca reported that the entire church congregation gathered to sing in celebration of the decision. Speaking in rough English, Khalil Ayoub thanked the church members, saying: “All the Canadian people very gentle, all them. They always help us everything.”

The Ayoubs had spent 56 years stranded in Lebanon, living in various refugee camps; after being driven out of a camp in south Lebanon, they finally fled the country, landing in the United States in 2000. Soon after, they went to Canada, and applied for refugee status. They were ordered deported in February 2004; but the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board
recently reversed its previous decision on humanitarian grounds.

CC.com spoke to the church’s parish council president, Claire Doran, one of the key members of the family’s support group.

The Ayoubs, she said, “found themselves [driven] out of Palestine in 1948,” when the state of Israel was established. They wandered from camp to camp, experiencing “half a century of humiliation, misery and war.” As Christian Palestinians, she stressed, “they were in a very difficult position. Many Lebanese Christians saw them as just Palestinians, not as fellow
Christians. Also, they were not considered fellow Palestinians by many of the Muslims, who saw them just as Christians.”

Asked why it had taken the trio such an extraordinarily long time to leave Lebanon, Doran replied: “It was very difficult for them to travel, and to get permission to get out of the country.” The brothers, she said, “were 12 and 14 when they were kicked out of Palestine. They worked at physical labour, and lacked education. They had no access to a lot of information; so they were resigned to their lot.”

Their flight from Lebanon was precipitated by threats of violence. “Palestinian refugee camps are not policed by the Lebanese government. They were the last Christian family in an all-Muslim camp.” There, Doran said, an Islamist extremist faction had attempted unsuccessfully to recruit one of Khalil Ayoub’s sons. Consequently, she said, “some people were throwing
rocks at their house. Muslim friends warned them to leave.”

The Ayoub brothers had long been drawn to Canada; back in the 1940s, when Palestine was a British protectorate, they had met friendly Canadians. “They had a vision of Canada as a safe place, a good place, where people respect life,” said Doran. When they finally fled Lebanon, they first went to the U.S. for practical reasons. “Before 9/11,” said Doran, “you could still obtain a visitor’s visa to the U.S.”

Once in Montreal, their application for refugee status was turned down — on the grounds that there was a Christian camp in Lebanon where they would be safe.

The refugee board’s decision, said Doran, had been well-intended. However, she said, the Ayoubs feared returning. The church support committee “worked hard to find evidence that the camp wasn’t a good place. Somebody went there, and sent us some pictures. We found evidence that [the Ayoubs] could not even enter the camp.” If they had returned to Lebanon, she said, “they would have been out on the street.”

The family, she said, “were absolutely devastated” by the deportation order. At the time, they had been attending another Montreal church, a member of the Melkite Rite of the Roman Catholic church. However, their church was not able to give them sanctuary.

“Their own church,” Doran explained, “is a so-called ‘ethnic’ church. They don’t feel well-established in this country. It would be too risky for them to do an act of civil disobedience.” On the other hand, she said, a mainstream church such as Notre Dame de Grace was well equipped for the task.

“We became convinced that justice had not been done to [the family]. They were extremely vulnerable, after a lifetime of suffering.” Asked whether the church would be continuing to help the Ayoubs, she enthused: “Absolutely. We will remain friends with them.”

Doran said the trio had much to look forward to. “If they are accepted as citizens, it will be the first time they’ve had a country, with their own passport, since 1948. They will be able to call a country their own.”