They’ve lost 14 years as they’ve fought to be together in Canada — anguish compounded by the deaths of two infant sons in West Africa

Bernadin Kossi Ben Djikounou says he always pauses when he’s out and sees young kids running around in parks or riding on their parents’ backs.

It’s a glimpse of the life he once might have had here in Canada, with the two sons he never got to meet and hold.

Both boys, Elizier and Enfta, died as infants in Togo in Western Africa a decade apart, in 2009 and 2019 — while the former refugee was trying to bring his wife to join him in Canada.

“I love kids. I feel happy whenever I see kids around me,” says Djikounou, 47, who lives in Surrey, B.C.

“But I never got to see my own or touch them. It’s sad. I don’t know if my wife and I will get another chance (to have a child).”

The couple’s odyssey with Canada’s immigration system started in 2008 and, exacerbated by the global pandemic, was recently flagged by a Federal Court judge who questioned whether they would have had the same trouble if their family reunification was being processed by a visa post in Europe.

Since their marriage at the Krisan Refugee Camp in Ghana in 2008, Djikounou has made two failed attempts to sponsor his wife, Ayawa Awuno, to Canada, in 2008 and 2010.

Elizier Djikounou died of hydrocephalus when he was seven months old.

They were refused because she was not included in her husband’s original refugee-resettlement application; the two only met and married afterward and say they didn’t know he needed to update the file to keep her from being barred from admission.

The couple were giving up while maintaining a long-distance relationship until Djikounou met a lawyer who suggested trying to get Awuno here on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Their third application was filed in 2017 and is still pending.

Recently, Awuno has been asked to submit a new police certificate and medical report to the visa post in Accra, the capital city of Ghana — a sign that the application is moving in the system.

However, it appears Djikounou’s spousal sponsorship application might have continued to languish in the system if his lawyer had not challenged the Canadian immigration department’s delays, which officials have blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a judgment released in April, the Federal Court recognized the operational challenges at the Accra visa post which, like others in developing countries, lacked the infrastructure and resources to continue services online.

“But difficult circumstances, such as the pandemic, require adaptability,” wrote Justice Richard Mosley in ordering immigration officials to complete the processing of the couple’s application and to make a decision within 60 days in the absence of any other concerns.

“It is not consistent … to continue to process applications from Western countries while applications in Ghana were left to languish.” Experts lauded Mosley for calling out the different treatment of applicants from different regions.

“There’s the overall processing times issues, but then there’s also that sort of thornier issue of the disparity in delays and barriers put up in different places in the world. I think what the court was getting at is that it’s not just about processing times,” says Kyle Hyndman, president of the Canadian Bar Association immigration law division.

“The issues that have led to longer processing times have affected different people differently in very unfair ways … some people get better treatment and other people get worse. The pandemic has been used as an excuse to pave over some of these issues when it really just aggravated them.”

Immigration lawyer Erica Olmstead, who represents the couple, said her clients submitted the sponsorship application almost 30 months before the pandemic started and had made every attempt possible to follow up with immigration officials.

“The family had been separated for a very long time, for 13 years. So they were facing hardship that was really over and above what a normal couple would face,” she said.

“Just because you happen to be from a certain country and region in the world, it doesn’t mean you should face disproportionate hardship and prolonged separation from your spouse because of the systemic problems.”

Djikounou fled political turmoil in Togo in 2003 and arrived in the refugee camp in Ghana, where he met Awuno in 2008, just months before he was interviewed for resettlement under Canada’s government refugee-sponsorship program.

The couple got married later and lived together for five months before he got his permanent-resident visa to come to Canada. Djikounou immediately applied to sponsor Awuno, only to learn that the law barred dependants not included in the initial immigration application from future entry in the country.

After twice being denied permission to bring his wife to Canada on his own, Djikounou enlisted Olmstead’s help for a third attempt in 2017, requesting a humanitarian and compassionate exemption from the bar.

While he and his wife were waiting for the processing of the new application, Ottawa introduced a special policy to allow certain exemptions in order to reunite separated families. The couple was eligible and wrote to ask for consideration under the new policy in 2019, amid the sorrow of losing their second son days earlier.

Instead, they were asked to provide more proof of their relationship without being told what was in question. All they were told was “the application was in queue for review and no further action was necessary,” despite notes previously made on their file calling for an interview with Awuno.

In a memorandum of argument, the federal government said officials had assessed the application and determined that an in-person interview was necessary to determine whether the marriage is genuine. It said credibility is best assessed in person or “perhaps virtually,” but that option was unavailable in Accra.

“This is not a situation in which the Minister failed to provide any justification for the delay. COVID-19 caused a near standstill in many aspects of life, throughout the world,” it said.

“Prior to COVID-19, the application was progressing in a reasonable manner and continued to do so even after (immigration) officials returned to the office in a full capacity. In sum, the Minister has performed and is performing their public legal duty.”

However, Djikounou’s wife was not called for an interview nor was she sent a letter outlining any concerns the visa post might have about the application, said the court. Only after the legal challenge was initiated in April 2021 was the information about the requested interview made known to the couple — by way of an affidavit in response to the court.

Last September, the couple again were asked for more information for their application, which the court said had already been provided as early as 2018.

Another affidavit, dated October 2021, stated that Awuno could fly to Ghana for an interview at the High Commission, but that option was never communicated to her. Officials, the court said, seemed to have ignored the information provided on the couple’s file.

“It is difficult to understand, on the basis of the record before the court, why officials may then have doubted that the relationship was (genuine) given the substantial evidence submitted by the Applicants,” wrote Justice Mosley.

“High Commission officials then misled the applicants, perhaps inadvertently, by informing them that the application was in the queue for review and that no action was required, but then failing to disclose that an interview was required.”

What happened to Djikounou did not surprise a social-media group made up of about 150 immigration applicants whose files are currently before the Accra visa post.

“Accra has been like that before pandemic. It’s a point of prayer for applicants in this region — to pray against having their applications sent there for processing,” says Ogunsanya Sekinat, a spokesperson for the group. The e-commerce consultant applied for permanent residence under Manitoba’s provincial immigration program two years ago.

“The pandemic made it worse, since it’s a basis for the visa office to ignore all inquiries using the situation as a cover.”

Djikounou, who works as a care aid in hospital and nursing home, said the endless separation from his wife — and the loss of his two sons, one at seven months of age and the other at just two days — were devastating. He wasn’t able to travel to see his wife until 2015 after receiving his citizenship and passport, but has since visited her yearly, only three weeks at the most each time in order to keep his job.

He felt that his children — the first died of hydrocephalus, the second was born with breathing problems — might have been around today if they had made it to Canada and had access to proper health care.

“I don’t know why immigration made decisions for others’ applications but just ignored ours,” said Djikounou. “They just don’t care about us.”

CORRECTION — June 1, 2022 — This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the surname of Kyle Hyndman, president of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration law division.

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


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