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Gay Palestinian seeking asylum in Canada set to be deported despite death threats

John Calvin says he believes he will be killed if he is deported from Canada back to Palestine, where his life has been threatened in the past for rejecting Islam and leaving his pro-Hamas family.
John Calvin says he believes he will be killed if he is deported from Canada back to Palestine, where his life has been threatened in the past for rejecting Islam and leaving his pro-Hamas family. (John Calvin)

TORONTO — If the Canadian government decides to deport John Calvin back to Palestine on Nov. 4, he believes he will be killed.

“It’s a known thing that it will be a death sentence, so there would be no way around it,” he said from his home in Edmonton.

“Scared, terrified, disappointed, there’s a bunch of different things that one in my situation would feel.”

The Canadian government believes the 24-year-old is, or was, a member of the Palestinian militant organization Hamas and therefore is ineligible to seek asylum in Canada as a refugee.

But Calvin fled his chaotic upbringing under one of the most notorious pro-Hamas families in Palestine at the age of 19, which is why he says he has taken on a new name, and a new life, in Canada.

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Calvin’s refugee claim was based on his assertion that he had abandoned Hamas and that members of his family had tried to kill him for doing so and that his life would be in immediate danger upon returning to Palestine.

Initially, his case looked favourable after his lawyer says an immigration hearing determined his young age and minimal interactions with Hamas proved he was not a member of the group that the Canadian government designates as a radical Islamist-nationalist terrorist organization.

But a second hearing with the Immigration Appeal Division reached the opposite conclusion and Calvin is set to be deported on Nov. 4.

“So you have these two completely contradictory and inconsistent decisions and unfortunately John doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt, he gets the worse decision imposed against him,” said Calvin’s lawyer Nate Whitling, who is also one of Omar Khadr’s lawyers, adding that an appeal to that decision was flatly denied without explanation.

“That’s the end, we can’t appeal that any further so we’re sort of out of options in the courts and John is stuck with this decision.”

Radical upbringing

Calvin says his grandfather was one of the founders of Hamas and as the first-born son in his family he was set to become “the heir for my grandfather’s ‘throne.’”

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At the age of 11, he says he studied and memorized the Quran in a mosque in the West Bank, but upon finishing his studies at 14 he began questioning the religion to the dismay of his family.

“There was a bunch of things within it religiously that made no sense to me and therefore I started questioning and asking questions,” he said.

“That prompted a lot of problems between me and my family especially that I caused them an embarrassment, especially in public.”

After a “huge fight” with his family in 2005, Calvin ran away from home and fled into Israel, where he was detained for not having the proper documentation to enter the country.

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“I was put in this prison and I was sexually assaulted by another Palestinian guy and that was actually the turning point in my life because what I was raised and indoctrinated to believe, as an indisputable fact, that Jewish people are purposed to hate, destroy and harm us Muslims,” he said.

“That was the main line that I grew up learning and that was the opposite of what I [experienced], after the treatment that I received after that incident in jail.”

Calvin says Israeli officials offered social workers and psychiatrists who helped him to get past the difficult experience.

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“I would not have actually been able to even remotely have gone through that had it not been for the fact that I was actually in prison where they hired professionals to help me from outside,” he said.

Dangerous ideological shift

Calvin worked six days a week in a factory in the West Bank until the end of 2009, only returning to his family’s home once a week to do laundry. It was at this point that he decided to convert to Christianity, causing the ideological rift between himself and his family to grow.

“On March 27, 2010 my family found out. My mother overheard me talking to a priest on my cellphone from my bedroom asking to be baptized,” he said.

“She started screaming, my father came in and we got into a fight, my father then tried to stab me and I managed to escape. I was in hiding for a little while but ran into my father on June 22, 2010 and he physically attacked me in public.”

It was then that Calvin says he endured an extreme form of re-indoctrination to Islam that he described as “torture,” under the direction of his grandmother, whom he calls the “First Lady” of Hamas.

For weeks Calvin endured this, he says, until his mother showed up at his grandmother’s house one night looking “as if she’d seen a ghost.”

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“She informed me that my father had arranged it with the government so that he would have me killed that night and he would go to prison for only three months under ‘honour murder,’” he said.

“She asked me to leave the country and she helped me leave the city, I managed to escape … by the help from my pastor from Bethlehem at the time, I ended up in Jordan.”

Seeking asylum

This is when Calvin’s luck began to change.

He says he was offered a scholarship to the Celebration Bible College in Toronto, now called the World Impact Bible Institute, where he studied for eight months on a student visa.

In June 2011, after two of his uncles he says are top Hamas officials were released from prison, Calvin sought asylum in Canada, which allowed him to stay in the country for another year. This is also around the time that Calvin felt comfortable enough to come out as a homosexual, something he believes would also endanger his life in Palestine.

In July 2012, the Canadian Border Services Agency suspended his case and his situation has been uncertain ever since.

In that time, Calvin moved to Edmonton to study at another Christian school, but in August 2014 after his case was denied he found out he was set to be deported on Dec. 31, 2014.

Calvin was informed last month that his appeal was also denied and he will now officially be deported on Nov. 4 of this year.

Whitling, whom friends in Edmonton helped foot the bill for, is hoping to delay this decision further because in Calvin’s case, deportation could mean death.

Calvin says he still believes in the Canadian legal system and hopes that his case will be resolved; averting what he calls a death sentence.

“But that does not make the law unjust and I wouldn’t blame the Canadian government for it. I don’t think Stephen Harper himself made the decision,” Calvin.

“So that’s also why I’m appealing to the public, to ask the public to raise awareness to get the government, the higher government officials’ attention to this case.”

He says that if he could speak with Harper, he would ask him to consider his case “on a personal level” to understand the danger he is in and so that he could see that he himself has no connection with Hamas.

“If they looked at the whole picture, the decision would be absolutely different,” he said.

“Harper does have the power and authority to make an executive decision to actually overturn the verdict and just decide to allow me to proceed with my refugee process here because my refugee claim was never heard.”

In the meantime, Calvin says he spends his time studying philosophy, with hopes of securing refugee status here and enrolling in law school in Alberta.

He says he is forever grateful to the friends who have helped him upon arrival in Canada who have set up online fundraising campaigns and petitions with the hashtag #SaveJohnCalvin, formed committees on his behalf and even helped to pay his legal costs.

“With this whole mess I ended up in, I would like to express how impressed I’ve been with the public and people that I don’t know and how they stood behind me and supported me,” he said.

“That has been quite impressive and I would like to actually say thank you to all of those people who have done, or will do, anything, in whichever shape or form.”

Time running out

Calvin’s lawyer says he is running out of options in the legal system to help him and does not know what will happen next.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada referred a request for comment to the Canada Border Services Agency, which said in a statement that it cannot speak to the specifics of the case and that “the decision to remove someone from Canada is not taken lightly.”

“Everyone ordered removed from Canada is entitled to due process before the law and all removal orders are subject to various levels of appeal,” the statement read.

“Our position is clear, once individuals have exhausted all legal avenues of recourse/due process, they are expected to respect our laws and leave Canada or be removed.”

CBSA says a pre-removal risk assessment by CIC “is one of the safeguards in place to ensure people in need of protection are not removed,” which is where Calvin’s case currently stands.

“There’s very little else we can do. He’s working on a risk assessment, which we hope will allow him to stay in Canada for at least some time in terms of both his risk that he could potentially present to Canada, which is none, and the risk that he would face returning to Palestine,” Whitling said.

“They could potentially find that the risk to him is so great that they won’t return him, but then he would just be left in sort of a limbo sort of state so it’s tough to tell what might happen from here.”

Meanwhile, Calvin received a work permit last month after months of waiting and says he has been frantically searching for work in Edmonton during the past few weeks.

“Edmonton has become home,” he said. “It’s home. I don’t think there’s a better way of saying it.”

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