Are you citizen enough?

On October 10th 2009, the Canadian Arab Federation hosted an evening entitled ‘Disowning Canadians Abroad’ where a number of guest speakers discussed the trend of Canadian citizens from racialized backgrounds being abandoned by the Canadian government when facing challenges while abroad.
Many spoke from first-hand experience. Faraz Siddiqui was one of the speakers.

Are you citizen enoughFaraz Siddiqui is a 24-year old Canadian citizen of Pakistani background who was arrested in Lebanon for overstaying his visa, despite visa exclusions covering Canadians visiting Lebanon. He was suspected of terrorist activities due to his frequent visits to Palestinian camps on United Nations missions, where he was an intern. Throughout the ordeal, the Canadian consulate remained on the sidelines, refusing to investigate the allegations. He spent nearly a week in maximum security prison before being released without any charges.

The following piece is based on Faraz Siddiqui’s remarks delivered at this event.

In the Name of God, Most Gracious and Merciful. Peace be upon you all

As the first speaker of the night, I hope I don’t set too morbid a mood, although the topic at hand is a solemn one. Already, this event and your presence here is reason for optimism. I am really grateful to the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) and Khadijeh Rakie for inviting me to speak at this event, and I wish to thank everyone in attendance for lending me an ear. After an initially discouraging response, I am glad that CAF has chosen to give voice to my situation.

In the early 90s, a theory in criminology called ‘fixing broken windows’ was presented by two professors from the United States. Imagine a building with broken windows that remain unrepaired. The image of disorder and negligence it gives tells residents and passersby that no one cares about problems in the neighbourhood and encourages more uncivilized activity, eventually ballooning the neighborhood into a slummy crime-filled area of lawlessness. If law enforcers start by repairing broken windows, that is, start paying attention to less serious examples of social disorder, the general sense in the community will be one of a safe neighbourhood and have a powerful effect in containing crime, much stronger than major operations against large criminal gangs. This model was most successfully applied in New York City in the mid-1990s when crime had peaked and contributed to a sharp decline thereafter. Today, New York is the safest of the 10 largest cities in the USA.

When compared to the protracted trials faced by Maher Arar or Abousofian Abdirazik, I feel my experience in Lebanon was a case of broken windows: a relatively small but important incident. Highlighting such cases could reveal an entrenched, systemic problem in Canadian foreign policy and send a message to the government that even the slightest abuse of our rights will not be tolerated. If we call the government up on the relatively fewer “high profile” cases of major policy, intelligence and security blunders, we might seem reactionary, opportunistic and insincere.

Allow me to first explain what I was doing in Lebanon, where I include a small Don’t Try This At Home disclaimer for the students in the room thinking of careers in international development. I’ll then explain the exact circumstances I found myself in last May and finally I wish to analyse why I think it happened.

As some of you might know, my career aspirations are in public healthcare, with a specific interest in regions of war and with the displaced populations of war. As an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, I chaired an international conference on the subject, and wrote a thesis on the topic. After graduating, I put together some money and bought myself a one-way ticket to Lebanon, where I started looking for work with the Palestinian refugee populations. My aim was simple: to live and work in the camps, to get an idea of what it means to live as a refugee, and to see the challenges for delivering healthcare services to these people. In September 2008, I was offered an unpaid internship with UNRWA Lebanon, the UN agency responsible for the Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. I did not end up living inside the camps; instead I lived in and around the American University of Beirut for the first few months. However, that soon became difficult for me since the cost of living in Beirut was higher than I expected (almost as expensive as a smaller Canadian city). I moved to the cheaper southern suburbs of Beirut, starting teaching English privately and used mini-vans to move around the country, that being the most economical mode of transport. These details are important because my frugality later seemed to arouse suspicion.

As part of my research project, I visited almost all the Palestinian camps and gatherings in the country including the recently ravaged Nahr El-Bared and the continually besieged camps in Southern Lebanon. My trips were also simple: get the required clearances from the Lebanese Army, go into the camp in a marked UN vehicle with UN staff and driver, go directly into the Health Clinics to take my surveys, interviews and pictures and leaving as soon as I was done. I finished my internship on March 15th 2009 when a promise of employment with the Agency fell through, but I continued to help edit and proof-read agency reports.

My last entry to Lebanon was on the 2nd of January at the Syrian/Lebanese border, I was returning from a trip to Damascus. Similar to the other times, I bought a visitor visa at the border which allowed me to stay in the country for 3 more months, i.e., until April 2nd, 2009. I did not renew my visa in April since I was leaving the country in May for a few days to visit my dad in Kuwait. This was not illegal. In fact, it is a well known process throughout the Middle East. As a Canadian citizen, I was allowed to overstay my visa and pay for an exit visa at the airport. The travel advisory report on the Canadian Foreign Affairs website confirmed it: “Extensions of one month (on three-month visas) are given by the Airport Branch of General Security… If your entry visa has expired and you have overstayed it by less than one year, an extension (or exit visa) will be granted free of charge. If you have overstayed your entry visa by more than one year, you will be required to pay a fine.”

Unfortunately for me, the Lebanese Army did not know or care about these visa rules. With the elections round the corner, they had stepped up security all around the country. On the 7th of May, as I was travelling in a mini-van to visit my friend, Kay in Saida (which is the 2nd largest city in Lebanon, but also has the notorious Ein El Hilwa camp in its outskirts), I was arrested because my visa had been expired 34 days ago, and thrown in army prison. I was kicked, ridiculed and interrogated in Arabic (my Arabic is far from good!) even though I asked for an English translator. After I laid out my story and it was written in the form of a report, I was made to sign it even though I could not read any of it. The intelligence officer called Kay and my direct supervisor at the United Nations to confirm my story. My story seemed to have been true. I was not a Palestinian or a Lebanese, as they had suspected me to be. I was kept in prison overnight and promised to be released the next day.

This was only the start of my troubles, however. The next morning, I was handed over to the Lebanese Ministry of General Security, driven around in handcuffs and taken to the General Security high security prison. There were refugees from Iraq and Sudan there, illegal immigrants, petty criminals or migrant labourers and trafficked sex workers imprisoned in several cells (some for up to 2 years), with some cells having as many as 50 people crammed into it. I would spend the next four days in this prison with hardly any access to a phone or a lawyer.

On my second day, I was called by the investigation officer, who read my reports and asked me all sorts of questions about what I’m doing in the country. He later told me that he recommended my immediate release since I was not involved in any wrongdoings of any sort. However, those at the top had different plans for me. As some of you might know, the Palestinians and the camps are severely stigmatized in Lebanon and a young Kuwaiti-born man with Pakistani origins could be up to no good in the camps. They wanted to keep me in while they investigated me.

One of my Lebanese friends agreed to represent me as my lawyer. He went to the head of the Ministry of General Security to look at my case. Later, he told me that the alleged visa irregularities were just excuses for holding me. The Lebanese intelligence had been following me for several weeks because I was living in the “dangerous” areas of the city and going around on the most public of transports which made me very invisible to them.  They were concerned that I was an Al-Qaeda operative in Lebanon on a fake Canadian passport who was dealing with Palestinian terrorists in the camps and used the United Nations internship as a front (even UNRWA is marginalized within the UN system in Lebanon).

Having already suspected something like this could happen, I had asked Kay to contact the Canadian embassy on my behalf. From my first day in prison, Kay made several calls to the embassy and was transferred to the emergency hotlines in Ottawa. They told her the Canadian government will not do anything and that Faraz has to deal with the authorities on his own. After pressure from Kay and my lawyer, the consulate made one phone call to their diplomatic contact in the army, a general in the Lebanese Forces. Too bad for me, he did not pick up his phone, so that was that!  My lawyer had to call them again and pressure them to do something more. A couple of days later, the consulate “stayed on line” with the General Security to get updates on my case. There was no active involvement.

Some things that the government could have done to help were: honoring the Canada-Lebanon consular agreement that allowed me to overstay the visa; verifying that my passport is not fake; affirming my purpose in the country, as I had registered with the consulate from when I first entered the country, or even by confirming with the United Nations; asking about the charges I am faced with, if any; visiting me to get my side of the story or to help me get in touch with friends and family in Canada. They did none of these. Through Kay, I got in touch with some friends in Toronto who emailed MPs and MPPs in Canada. My case was referred to the Foreign Minister Lawrence Connor’s office, who referred me to the same Travel Advisory that misled me. It said that it was the “sole prerogative of each country to establish and enforce its own visa requirements.” Again, it was a bunch of nonsense if they did not look into the issue. The irony of the situation was that in prison, my fellow inmates, even the guards and officers were surprised the Canadian consulate did not intervene on my behalf and were even more convinced that I had a fake passport.

I feel there are three reasons these things continue to happen to Canadians abroad. Firstly, the prejudices that we have built within our own communities mean that even we deem someone guilty without any evidence. We believe that “he must have done something to deserve it”, or “our youth are increasingly radicalized.” I am not asking anyone to give suspect an extra benefit of doubt, only a just process. This is the main reason why even in Lebanon, I was a suspect for ambiguous crimes. Canadians with Syrians or Sudanese or Lebanese background are just not interested in what is going on in their countries of origins because they feel that they have left that behind, that “there is no changing them, that is why we came here.” This lets Canadian policymakers to get away with anything. First, as a community, Muslim, Arab, minorities, of a Diaspora, we should be united in the call for due process. Only then can we get others to empathize on these causes.

Secondly, the failure is of the Canadian governments in general that have failed to put up policies of dealing with citizens abroad. Canada’s once strong international platform has weakened and international legal recourses are unavailable due to this weakened diplomatic position of Canada internationally.

Thirdly, Stephen Harper’s government has a particular blame in such problems. His version of Canadian exceptionalism is exclusive to a few racial backgrounds, and lets Canada get away with anything be it security certificates, blatantly xenophobic immigration policies and arbitrary decision on refugees or on respecting international treaties. In the latter case, Omar Khadr, a child soldier, still has no commitment of legal protection from Canada, which is a signatory to all the relevant Geneva Conventions.

A newly proposed bill by New Democrat Paul Dewar, if passed, could formalize the duty for Canada to stand up for the rights of Canadians wherever they are in the world, whatever their skin colour, whichever country they choose to go to. This is the least one can expect from a country that has enshrined its human rights in a charter yet lags behind most other developed countries in such a law. At least then, if circumstances get someone in trouble, they will know that their government will help them. A colleague from Norway, for example, who worked with the Norwegian embassy in Egypt told me their deputy foreign minister flying into Egypt to personally intervene on behalf of a few young boys who got themselves into trouble in Cairo, even though it was their own fault.

It has been almost 7 years since I came to Canada. Having lived between Kuwait and Pakistan, dodging Iraq’s invasion and family tragedies in Pakistan, Canada seemed to be a place which I could finally start calling home. I still hope that I can find that comfort here. I still hope that Canada lets all Canadians feel Canadian. Until then, I am afraid I have only my own wits, luck and local contacts to help me whenever I plan to travel anywhere in the world. Thank you.