Skip to content

Canadian families face ‘nightmare’ of competing for limited Gaza escape visas

Maximum of 1,000 people with extended family who can support them in Canada qualify
An Israeli soldier prepares a drone to be launched near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Two Palestinian sisters in Newfoundland are among families across Canada applying for a limited number of special visas they hope will rescue their loved ones from the Israel-Hamas war.

Marilyn and Miran Kasken say their younger brothers, 20-year-old Talal and 21-year-old Fahed, are sharing a tent in Rafah, near the Egyptian border. They have no water, no food, no bathrooms, no electricity and no internet.

They were living in Gaza City when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people. Almost immediately, Israel responded with near constant bombardment throughout the Palestinian territory. The brothers hid from bombs in basements and walked past demolished buildings and dead bodies on their journey to Rafah, said Marilyn Kasken, 24, in an interview in St. John’s, N.L.

To speak with her brothers and confirm they are still alive, Marilyn said she must contact a friend in the West Bank who can make a local call to try to reach them — if they have been able to find electricity to charge their phones.

The women say since the war broke out, their uncle was killed and their grandparents had to stay behind in Gaza City because they were too old and frail to evacuate. They have not heard from their mother in a week, and they don’t know if she’s still alive.

“Our siblings’ fate is now in the hands of the Canadian government. If they want to save them, they can. They have the chance to,” Kasken said. She said every day her brothers spend in the Gaza Strip diminishes their chances of survival.

“I don’t want to lose another family member.”

The special extended family program for people in Gaza is set to launch Tuesday. It comes after months of pleading from Palestinian Canadians for the federal government to help rescue their loved ones.

The Kasken sisters have hired an immigration lawyer with the help of an online fundraising campaign. Marilyn said the lawyer will spend Tuesday morning refreshing the online application for the portal with paperwork ready, waiting for the first opportunity to submit it.

More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed — about two-thirds of them women and children — and more than 58,000 wounded since the war began, according to local health authorities in the Hamas-controlled territory.

The program offers visas to a maximum of 1,000 people with extended family members in Canada. It would allow them to take refuge in Canada for three years, if their families are willing to financially support them during that time.

Canada’s existing program is available only to immediate family members of Canadians, including spouses and children.

The expansion will allow a limited number of parents, grandparents, adult children, grandchildren and siblings of Canadians and Canadian permanent residents, as well as their immediate family members.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has criticized the cap of 1,000 applicants, and said it has already been in contact with more than a thousand people trying to get their families out of Gaza.

Marilyn Kasken echoed those frustrations, noting that Ottawa has welcomed more than 210,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russian attacks on their country since 2022.

“It says that Palestinian people’s lives don’t matter,” she said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has defended the cap, and said the number of visas reflect the volatility of the situation on the ground and the challenges Canada and other countries have had moving people out of Gaza through the tightly-controlled border with Egypt.

The Kasken sisters met Monday with a staff member for Seamus O’Regan, the Liberal MP for St. John’s South — Mount Pearl, but said the meeting did not leave them with much hope.

“I want to wake up from this nightmare,” Marilyn Kasken said. “I prevent myself from thinking most of the time, but it doesn’t work.”

She said she can’t stop watching or reading the news. “People keep saying, ‘Don’t drain yourself watching the news.’ But what if your family is the news?”

The sisters arrived in St. John’s in October, through the federal human right defenders program, which resettles people who fight for fundamental freedoms but face risks in their home countries.

“I don’t really feel like I have a new beginning in Canada, because I can’t feel any good things while I am in constant fear of losing my friends and family and brothers,” Kasken said.

READ ALSO: Israel signals it has wrapped up major combat in northern Gaza

READ ALSO: Show goes on in Vancouver after Gaza tensions scrap play’s Victoria run