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Palestinian Canadians say their families are dying in Gaza while they wait to come to Canada

Maher Alanqar sat and watched his nephew suffer. The video — shot by a CBC News freelancer — captured every scream, every spasm as 10-year-old Adam Abu Ajwa called out for help after the home where he was sheltering with his parents and siblings in Khan Younis, Gaza was hit by a grenade on Jan. 17.

Adam suffered third-degree burns; his older sister Zeina, 26, escaped with burns and broken bones after being trapped under rubble for hours. They were the only ones in the house to survive. Their mother Hana and oldest brother Amr died and were buried in the courtyard of Nasser Hospital, one of the main hospitals in the central Gaza Strip.

Alanqar’s mouth twitched with every scream as he watched doctors work to treat the boy’s wounds without anesthesia. He told CBC News on Feb. 4 he had applied to get his sister and her kids out of Gaza under a special immigration measures program for extended family members of Palestinian Canadians.

They were waiting for news when their home was hit.

“It’s hard … It’s hard to watch this,” said Alanqar.

“We’re sitting here … in a safe place in Canada. I have my kids with me but my sisters, niece and nephew, they’re not safe. And we don’t know what to do, how to help them, how to get them out of there.”

WATCH | A Canadian’s agonizing wait to get loved ones out of Gaza:   

A Canadian’s agonizing wait to get loved ones out of Gaza

A month after the federal government pledged to issue temporary visas for Gazans with Canadian relatives, families are still waiting. Including Maher Alanqar, who has had several family members die in the interim and is fighting to get the survivors to safety.

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The federal government launched the special program last month after Palestinian Canadians pleaded for months for help with getting their loved ones out of Gaza.

The program offer visas to a maximum of 1,000 Gaza residents, allowing them to take refuge in Canada for three years if their families are willing to financially support them during that time. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller has said the 1,000-application limit is not a hard cap and could be extended.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says that almost 1,000 applications under the program have reached the second phase and are awaiting final admissibility decisions.

Around 1,200 people were killed in Israel on Oct. 7 during Hamas-led attacks, including several Canadians; Israeli officials said 253 others were taken hostage, with about 130 yet to return home. Palestinian officials say more than 27,000 people have been killed in the Israeli military response to the Hamas-led attacks.

People sit on the floor next to a row of bodies covered with white sheets.
People react next to bodies of Palestinians who were killed in an Israeli strike at the morgue of Nasser hospital on Nov. 7, 2023. (Mohammed Salem/REUTERS)

A spokesperson for Miller confirmed to CBC News that no one registered with Canada has been able to flee Gaza under the new program. That’s left many Palestinian Canadians anxiously waiting for word that their loved ones have been allowed to leave — or that they’ve joined the Israel-Hamas war’s growing list of casualties.

Alanqar said he applied on behalf of his sister and her children on Jan. 9, when the program opened. Hana and Amr died just eight days after their application was put through to Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada. 

He said he is hoping now he can get his niece and nephew out of the war zone before it’s too late, but he has yet to hear anything back from the federal government on the status of the applications.

“You’re trying to help, but the process or the whole system is not helping you out, whether it’s here or there,” he said. “Nobody has done anything so far.”

WATCH | Calgary man trying to get pregnant sister out of Gaza:  

Calgary man trying to get pregnant sister out of Gaza

Calgary resident Tamer Jarada, who says he has lost 16 family members since the Israel-Hamas war started, tells Rosemary Barton Live he is trying to get his pregnant sister out of Gaza using Canada’s special visa application process

Tamer Jarada of Calgary said he has lost 16 family members since the war started. He said he applied to bring his remaining family from Gaza to Canada on Jan. 9 — including his sister, who is pregnant and due Feb. 5.

Jarada got to the second stage of the application process, which allowed him to apply for a temporary residency visa for his sister. But he said he said he hasn’t heard from Immigration Canada about next steps in weeks.

“Every time I call, she’s crying. She’s begging me to help her,” he said. “I’m doing beyond my best to help her but my government is not listening, is not doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

In an interview with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton that aired Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said she and Miller are working hard on the issue.

“We made a commitment to these families. I know that these families are also waiting impatiently to leave,” she said. “And so that’s why we will continue to pressure the Israeli authorities and also the Egyptian government, which we also need the authorization from.”

Joly said getting people out of Gaza is a top priority for the government.

“You have my personal commitment, Canadians have my personal commitment, that this is a very important priority,” she said.

WATCH | Foreign Affairs Minister Joly on getting Canadians’ relatives out of Gaza:  

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Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly made a surprise trip to Ukraine on Friday. CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton spoke to Joly about Ottawa’s initiative to reunite families there, as well as escalating tensions throughout the Middle East.

In a Jan. 9 interview with David Cochrane, host of CBC’s Power and Politics, Miller said the government could offer no “guarantees” to people seeking its help to escape Gaza. He cited ongoing problems with access to the Rafah Gate crossing point between Gaza and Egypt.

“These are elements that are not under the control of Canadian authorities,” he said. “In addition to those two actors [Israel and Egypt], Hamas, a terrorist organization that has committed untold atrocities, has their word to say and sometimes plays games at that same border crossing.”

Miller also pointed to the problems Canadian authorities faced when evacuating Canadians from the enclave back in November 2023, citing the way the border crossing would be closed on very short notice.

“So no guarantee that people can get out, but the effort is worth it,” he said. “We think this is the humane thing to do for Canadians that have connections to people that are trying to just simply stay alive.”

Back at the Nasser Hospital Complex in Khan Younis, Zeina Abu Ajwa has been spending her days sitting by her brother’s bed, comforting him through his agony every time his bandages are changed.

“He suffers third-degree burns on both legs, so changing every day is very important. But that causes a lot of pain,” she said.

A woman sits at a table.
Hana Alanqar, 48, was killed on Jan. 17 when a grenade exploded near the home where she and her family were sheltering in Khan Younis, Gaza. (Courtesy Safa Alanqar)

She said that on the day of the attack, it took hours for someone to come to their aid.

“We lived almost 10 hours of horror and pain. I was under the rubble for eight hours,” she said. “My brother was out in the open bleeding.”

Alanqar said he wants to see more from the federal government than expressions of sympathy.

“Saving lives should be the top priority for any government or any official,” he said. “My mom was devastated because she couldn’t say the last word goodbye to her daughter …

“Parents, they would expect that their children bury them, not the other way around.”

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