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Ontario woman says brother died hungry in Gaza, waiting for word on Canadian visa

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A 62-year-old Ontario woman says her brother has died in northern Gaza after weeks spent searching for food and refuge while he waited for word from the federal government about whether he could come to Canada.

Sawsan Karashuli found out through a Facebook post that her brother, Ismail Qarsholi, had died on March 4, about two months after she applied to a newly opened program to secure him and his 25-year-old daughter Canadian visas. His daughter, Lina Qarsholi, is now alone in northern Gaza, Karashuli said, trying to stay alive in the epicentre of what international officials have described as a humanitarian catastrophe.

Karashuli says her only wish is for Ottawa to help her niece escape to live with her in Canada, the country Karashuli has called home for more than two decades.

She was joined by her son Marcus in a recent interview. “Mom had started to tidy up the room and fix everything up,” 36-year-old Marcus Karashuli said, his voice breaking. “She had clothes because they’d be coming with nothing. We truly believe in Canadian values, but we’re shocked that they’re not able to do anything … it’s just a lot of time, lost effort, a lot of false hope.”

The Canadian government launched a program in January to offer temporary visas to as many as 1,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have extended family in Canada, on the condition that their families support them when they arrive.

Sawsan Karashuli applied for her relatives the day the program launched. She said the application was confusing and costly, and she ultimately heard nothing back from the federal government about whether her relatives had been accepted, or if they could safely get to Egypt for final processing.

As of March 11, 986 applications had been accepted into processing under the program, but only 14 people had managed to cross from Gaza into Egypt for the required final screenings and been cleared to come to Canada, the federal Immigration Department said in a statement.

By comparison, Australian authorities said they issued nearly 2,300 visas to Palestinians between the beginning of the war on Oct. 7, 2023, and Feb. 6. As of March 7, Ireland had issued 90 visas since Oct. 7, said an email from Irish immigration officials.

Marcus Karashuli fell silent when he was told only 14 people had succeeded in getting temporary Canadian visas. “That is just heartbreaking,” he finally said.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller has expressed frustration at Canada’s impotence when it comes to facilitating the crossing of approved family members into Egypt. He said in Ottawa Monday that Canada is pleading with Egypt and Israel to let those people out so they can complete their security screening in Cairo and receive a visa.

Canada is prepared to welcome more than 1,000 applicants, he added, but he did not specify how many.

Ismail Qarsholi was enjoying retirement from a long career as an education director when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages. Israel swiftly retaliated with airstrikes and a ground assault, killing more than 30,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.

The war has driven 80 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes, including the Qarsholis. Famine is “imminent” in northern Gaza, where 70 per cent of people are experiencing catastrophic hunger, a United Nations-backed report said Monday.

Lina Qarsholi was doing a graduate degree in law when the war began, Marcus Karashuli said.

She and her father had nothing to do with Hamas or the attacks, Karashuli said, adding that Israel’s offensive “feels like collective punishment.”

Blackouts, spotty internet service and infrastructure damage made it difficult for the Karashulis to stay in touch with the pair in Gaza. Sometimes, they could only receive news through updates on social media, posted by friends or people sheltering alongside them. 

Qarsholi was 67 when he died. There are no functioning hospitals left in northern Gaza, so there was no doctor to pronounce him dead or determine how he died.

Blackouts and infrastructure damage made it difficult for the Karashulis to stay in touch with their relatives in Gaza, but Sawsan Karashuli said pictures sent to her through scant internet connections showed that her kind, beloved and well-respected brother had become a frail, starving man whose skin clung to the hollows in his skull.

Marcus Karashuli said Lina spoke often about how hungry she and her father were. “They were looking for scraps,” he said, adding that it felt impossible to come to grips with the agonizing way his uncle died.

He and his mother now hope Lina Qarsholi will be allowed to come to Canada on humanitarian grounds, since she doesn’t qualify for the Canadian visa program on her own.

They filed the latest paperwork last week, said Annie O’Dell, their lawyer. “It’s such a discretionary process that they could easily say no,” O’Dell said from her workplace just outside St. John’s, N.L.

Sawsan Karashuli, however, will not give up hope, and she plans to keep her niece’s room ready.

“I hope I can bring her here, please,” Karashuli said, crying. “I lost my brother, and she’s all that we have now.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press


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