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Iranian family in limbo, fears homelessness as immigration status unclear

Shohreh Aghababaei, gives her daughter Amelia, 5, a boost to watch the rain fall as Hamid Ahmadpanah, right, holds his daughter Kyla, 15 months, on the balcony at their home in Ottawa, on Thursday, June 8, 2023. The couple have lived in Canada for nine years and their children are Canadian citizens, but lost their work permit status. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Hamid Ahmadpanah and his wife have spent nearly a decade in Canada, working, learning English and raising two young daughters who were born here. 

But lately, the family has been living a life in limbo. 

The Iranian couple's work permits have expired as they wait for their permanent residency applications to be processed, and a new work permit promised by the government to Ahmadpanah never arrived, he says. 

The situation has left the pair unable to work and fearful of being sent back to Iran, where Ahmadpanah says his family would be at risk because he and his wife have taken part in protests against the Iranian government while in Canada.

"I studied here, worked here with my wife … my children were born here, raised here, now after nine years not only we have no citizenship rights, but also we don’t have the right to work and live (like) a normal family," Ahmadpanah says.

"My life has been ruined."

Ahmadpanah, 42, says he's speaking out in a desperate attempt for help as his savings run out and his family worries they may have to leave the life they've built in Canada. 

"We are losing hope every day," he says. "But we have to hide our stress, sadness and sorrow, because we have two children."

The couple came from Iran to Montreal in 2015 – Ahmadpanah had a student visa and his wife had a work visa. Ahmadpanah later got a post-graduation work permit. The family now lives in Ottawa.

Ahmadpanah and his wife applied for permanent residency in May 2021, when their work permits were still valid.

As their work permits neared expiry, they contacted their local MP and asked if she could advocate on their behalf with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Ahmadpanah says the MP's office told them their case was going through a security background check, a process that could take a long time. 

Ahmadpanah then received a letter from the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in August, saying his work permit – which was expiring in December 2022 – would be extended until December 2024 while his permanent residency application was being processed. 

"We will vary the conditions on your existing work permit to allow you to work until December 21, 2024, while we finalize your permanent resident application," IRCC wrote in the letter that was shared with The Canadian Press. "In most cases, we'll mail you a new work permit."  

But that work permit never came, Ahmadpanah says. 

In December last year, the family stopped receiving child benefit payments from Ontario for their five-year-old and one-year-old daughters, with the province saying they were no longer eligible due to their immigration status. A month later, the couple lost their provincial health insurance. 

"If I or my wife gets sick or something happens to us, we don’t have money to go to the hospital," Ahmadpanah says. 

In February, Ahmadpanah says he received a letter from IRCC saying he was eligible for an exemption allowing him to work in Canada until the end of May while he waited for a new work permit. He says he's still waiting for the new permit and his wife's work permit is no longer valid.

Ahmadpanah says he's made several calls to the IRCC, begging them to expedite his permanent residency application. He's also asked repeatedly to be issued the extended work permit IRCC said he was eligible for. 

He alleges an agent once told him that there was no "timeframe" for his permanent residency application, and another suggested the family should leave Canada if he and his wife don't get their work permits or permanent resident cards by the end of May. 

"We are really tired,” Ahmadpanah says in Farsi. 

The IRCC says it will not comment on specific cases. 

Speaking generally, it says temporary residents whose work permits expire can try to restore their status if they apply within 90 days. 

"If a foreign national’s temporary status ended more than 90 days ago, they are no longer eligible to restore their status and would be expected to leave Canada," IRCC wrote in a statement. 

Michael Battista, an immigration and refugee law expert who is a professor at the University of Toronto, says the family has a few options, though none would resolve their problems right away.

One is for Ahmadpanah to apply for refugee status given the situation in Iran, another is to apply for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, Battista says.

Battista says the family could also ask a federal court to order the IRCC to expedite the process of the couple’s permanent residency application. 

But any of those potential solutions would take time, he says, calling the family's current situation "brutal."  

Ahmadpanah says his family is now at risk of losing their apartment because neither he nor his wife can earn enough for rent. 

The family has been using their savings but those are dwindling. They've also been selling their belongings and raised over $11,000 through a GoFundMe campaign but that covers just two months of expenses, Ahmadpanah says. 

"I really don’t know what to do," he says.  

"Some suggest I leave my apartment and live in my car with my children ... What should we do with two innocent children?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023. 

Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press

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