NEWS
08/12/2020 11:56 EDT | Updated 08/14/2020 12:35 EDT

She Was Coming To Canada As A Refugee From Lebanon. Then The Pandemic Struck.

Selam Nega and her young son have endured crisis after crisis, waiting for word from Canada.

Selam Nega/Supplied
Selam Nega and her son Dani were supposed to come to Canada from Lebanon this spring as refugees, but the process has been delayed due to the pandemic.

Their fifth-floor apartment window was flung open to the hot sun when Selam Nega and her three-year-old boy noticed a plume of smoke mushrooming over the Port of Beirut, about three kilometres north.

Concerned, she grabbed Dani and ran to the stairs. 

Suddenly, what felt like a powerful earthquake rattled the building. A sharp blast violently shattered windows all around them, as they ran outside. The city, reduced to rubble and shattered glass, had descended into chaos.

Neither Nega nor Dani were injured. She’s concerned about structural damage to their apartment, but is afraid to leave.

“It is a desperate situation, especially now that it’s been one thing after another,” Nega, 33, told HuffPost Canada with help from a translator. “First, with the economic crash, then the inflation, then the coronavirus, and then the explosion. It keeps getting worse and I’m at the end of my wits.”  

Nega didn’t think she’d still be in Beirut at this point, not since she got life-changing news in early 2020 that her and Dani’s refugee application for permanent residency in Canada had been approved. 

Watch: Slow motion footage of Beirut explosion. Story continues below.

After enduring years of trauma and poverty in first Ethiopia and now Lebanon, Nega could finally guarantee Dani an education and a “good life,” she said. Soon, she would hear more about travel arrangements, officials at the Canadian embassy told her. 

“I was feeling happy and hopeful,” Nega said. “This will never be my country. But when I go to Canada, I’ve heard it’s possible for people to build homes and feel like this is where they belong.” 

Days after Nega received official approval in March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic and Lebanon shut its borders, making travel to Canada impossible. The weeks ticked by for Nega and Dani, marked by silence from Canadian officials, even after Lebanon began allowing some commercial flights in early July

The single mother said she was forced to give up her job as a housekeeper when Dani’s daycare closed due to the COVID-19 crisis. She grew reliant on charitable organizations for food as Lebanon’s economy imploded and inflation spun out of control. She now struggles to access services after the explosion destroyed large swaths of the city and resulted in hundreds of thousands of people requiring aid. 

As the situation in Beirut became increasingly dangerous, Nega’s Canadian sponsor, Sandra Brunner also had no luck getting any update from Ottawa about when travel would be arranged. In pre-COVID times, Nega and Dani would’ve been on a plane to Canada within two months, the Toronto resident said. 

“I just want her here because everyday she’s not, is one more day of chance. I feel like our luck is going to run out at some point. And that would just…” Brunner trailed off, emotional.

“I know there’s people in desperate situations, but I would still really like to see something happen for Selam.” 

ANWAR AMRO/Getty Images
Firefighters evacuate a wounded man from the scene of an explosion at the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020.

The WHO reported last week that the blast killed more than 200 people, injured more than 6,000 others, destroyed much of the city and left 300,000 people homeless. Hospitals are struggling to handle the influx of victims as COVID-19 cases surged and the country is now relying on international aid to avoid a full-blown humanitarian crisis. 

Beirut’s 200,000 refugees were significantly impacted by the blast, said the United Nations Refugee Agency in a statement. It estimates at least 34 refugees died and more than 120 were injured. A further 10,000 vulnerable households are in urgent need of help. 

Lebanese officials said the blast occurred when a fire broke out at the port, setting off 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer, stored in a hanger the government had been urged to clear for years. Days of protests erupted as infuriated demonstrators demanded accountability and reform. 

On Monday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government resigned.

picture alliance/Getty Images
People inspect destruction outside a damaged building the day after the massive explosion.

Like untold others, Nega and Dani are at the mercy of an international refugee system that’s ground to a halt when its services are needed most. 

Because of the COVID-19 crisis and international travel restrictions, Canada is on track to accept the lowest number of refugees from the United Nations’ resettlement program since 2003, the earliest year data is available. As of June 30, 2020, Canada had accepted 1,476 UN refugees, compared to nearly 5,000 in 2003 and 22,000 in 2016 — the height of Canada’s effort to resettle Syrian refugees. 

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said in an email that as of June, it had received 58,000 refugee applications for both private sponsorship and government assistance programs and is processing as many as possible.

The immigration department said it has recently begun resettling some refugees from locations where conditions allow, including from Lebanon. According to its website, it is prioritizing Canadians trying to return home, people who perform an essential service and those who are vulnerable. 

“Canada has a long and proud tradition of resettling refugees fleeing war, conflict and persecution,” IRCC said in its statement. “With the support of our international partners, who have recently started to resume operations abroad, we continue to identify and prioritize the most urgent cases.” 

MARWAN TAHTAH/Getty Images
A wounded man is helped as he walks through debris.

Nega has been waiting close to two years since beginning her application process, but she had been striving for a better life long before that. She was born in Eritrea and then moved to Ethiopia with her parents when she was five years old. As a young teenager, she said she was trapped in a situation involving domestic violence that remains too difficult to share. 

“I’ve done a great deal of work to suppress a lot of traumas and I’d rather not bring them up,” Nega said. “It’s too painful to recall those memories.” 

Nega escaped that situation and in 2007 moved to Beirut with a work visa, although under Lebanon’s migrant worker system, she did not have labour protections or a chance of becoming a citizen. 

About four years ago, Nega met and married a Beirut-based Syrian refugee, who’d recently been sponsored by the Canadian government and was leaving soon for Canada. He promised to apply for her and their son to join him once he arrived, a process that would take about a year, Nega said. 

However, the man cut off all communication with Nega once he settled in Canada, Nega told HuffPost. Desperate for help, without a job or any financial support, and struggling even to buy formula for her newborn baby, Nega reached out to the Toronto-based group that had been helping her husband, and was connected with Brunner. 

Brunner has sponsored Syrian refugee families since 2016 and said she had no idea the man her group had been helping to learn English and make friends had abandoned his wife and child in Lebanon. And once she spoke to Nega and heard her story, she knew she would do everything in her power to give her and Dani a better life.

“For me, it was just a question of knowing her life and understanding that she couldn’t go back home. She has no legal passport or legal status and neither does her son,” Brunner said. “If we had just said ‘see you later’ it would’ve been a life in limbo for who knows how long.” 

Brunner helped Nega pay for childcare, so she could return to work, and they began the refugee application process

In the meantime, they spoke everyday, forming a bond stronger than friendship, more like sisterhood. Next week, Dani is turning four years old and loves drawing helicopters and pointing out different types of trucks on city streets. He’s also dreaming of Canada. 

“Dani will pick up his backpack and say he’s going to Canada to see Sandra,” Nega said. “We love Sandra very much.” 

UPDATE - Aug. 13, 2020: This story has been updated to include a comment from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.