Morufat Ogunkoya and her children. GLORIA KATCH PHOTO

While most of us were lined up in stores Christmas shopping, about 70 members of various faith groups from the Chinese, Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities lined the sidewalks picketing the federal Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship’s office in Toronto in support of religious freedom, on Saturday, Dec. 21.

Organized by One Free World International (OFWI), which has branches in 28 countries, including Canada, many at the rally were there to support of the Ogunkoya family from Welland, who are facing deportation back to Nigeria. The Ogunkoyas came to Canada to avoid religious persecution, they say, because they converted from Islam to Christianity.

The mother, Morufat, 46, claims she fled the West African nation because her father, a Muslim cleric, has threatened her life and those of her family several times. Her battle now lies with trying to prove she is in imminent danger to Immigration Canada, which has issued a deportation order.

Majed El Shafie, president and founder of OFWI, said it was important to “show support from different religious groups,” at the rally. Since the recent federal election, there was a cabinet shuffle and Marco Mendicino has been appointed the new Minister of Immigration. Mendicino was elected in 2015 as an MP for the Eglington-Lawrence riding in Toronto.

El Shafie said OFWI obtained a new lawyer to assist the Ogonkoya family. The organization has also sent Mendicino an official letter to make him aware of this case, and a request to use his authority to allow the family to remain in Canada. However, El Shafie said Parliament doesn’t resume until January 27 and he isn’t expecting any decision to be determined in the interim. El Shafie plans to present the Mendicino with a petition in support of the family, which is still being circulated through the OFWI website.

The petition was started by Rose City Kids, in Welland, where it obtained 35,000 signatures.

A deportation order was issued to the family in November, after an appeal for asylum was denied. However, El Shafie said the family has since gone “underground.” When asked if that was the best solution, El Shafie said,“They have no other option. They gave us no choice from what we see. They either go into hiding or go to Nigeria to be killed. They are at least safe now.”

El Shafie is hoping the Mendicino will overturn his department’s decision, as another application has been submitted to appeal on “humanitarian and compassionate grounds.”

“The Minister of Immigration and The Ministry of Public Safety has the power to stop the deportation order while the application is in the process and let them be free in the meantime,” said El Shafie. “This is a very, very sad situation, that the young kids have no future,” he added, referring to the Ogunkoya children—Rejoice, 9, Hephzibah, 14 and Victor, 16.

Fonthill resident Debbie Hoffele, a friend of the Ogunkoya family, and who was at the rally, said since the family went underground the children were pulled from school. Morufat had a job at Embassy Suites in Niagara Falls to support her family, but since the deportation order was issued the government revoked her work permit and any access to medicine, which puts pressure on them to leave. According to Hoffele, she is unaware if an actual date for removal has been established as yet. Victor also worked last summer and has received awards from Notre Dame Secondary School for being an exemplary student. Now the family is living in the basements of people’s homes and on charity and donations from church groups and other sympathetic individuals.

According to El Shafie, while it may not be experiencing a large-scale civil war like Syria, Nigeria is “an extremist country no matter where you are.” His comment was in reference to Immigration Canada’s suggestion to return the Ogunkoya family to Port Harcourt, in Nigeria, where there is a significant population of Christians. However, Morufat has told immigration that Port Harcourt is only two hours away from where she once lived, and she could be easily be detected by the government as soon as her children registered for school.

“Christians celebrating Christmas get attacked all the time there,” said El Shafie. “Keep in mind that converting to Christianity is a huge crime and her father is an extremist cleric.”

The Nigerian government “turns a blind eye to crimes done to Christians,” he added. “The biggest problem in Canada is that the judges aren’t aware of the atrocities committed.”

When asked if he had experience with previous cases from Nigeria, El Shafie said that two issues were prevalent from refugees there: freedom of religious persecution and female genital mutilation.

“My point is that we’re in Canada and we are the temple of human rights. We’re a proud nation, but now we are deporting this model family?”

From Immigration Canada’s perspective, the family did not enter Canada through the proper channels. Morufat originally obtained a visa to travel to the U.S. in 2016. She didn’t seek asylum there and returned to Nigeria. Then she obtained a visa for her children in 2017 to go to the U.S., but she crossed into Canada via Lacolle, Quebec, which is not an official point of entry.

However, Debbie Hoffele said Morufat chose this route “because of all the stuff she heard in the news, she was afraid.” El Shafie added during this time, “there was a flood of refugees crossing in Quebec,” noting that Canadian Immigration was aware there was a refugee crisis in the U.S.

While Canada’s immigration rules do not accept third party refugees, Hoffele said, “When you’re afraid for your life and clinging to your family” she understands why Morufat would try to bring her children here.

Officially the Ogunkoya family has never been denied refugee status in the U.S., and her visas for the U.S. have since expired and she can’t return there.

“I don’t know if she has a Plan B,” said Hoffele, who said she is praying for the family to remain in Canada.

El Shafie said that anyone interesting in signing the petition to keep the family in Canada may find it at: https://ofwi.org/freeogunkoyas

“They’re the kind of people we would want as Canadian citizens,” said Hoffele. “Why is the Canadian government doing this?”