Two months after landing in Canada, a refugee who helped shelter whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong says she’s grateful for her new life but is worried about the other members of the group who assisted the American fugitive.
Vanessa Rodel said she and her seven-year-old daughter, Keana, are settling into life in Montreal, where they’ve found an apartment and are learning French.
For the first time since she fled gender-based persecution and human trafficking in the Philippines to head to Hong Kong 17 years ago, she can go to school again.
After years of uncertainty, the 42-year-old said getting real ID felt like “winning a prize.”
“For the first time I got a credit card and permanent residence, so I’m so happy,'” she said Wednesday at a news conference in Montreal. “Now I’m going to French class, it’s amazing, because I already got my student ID.”
Rodel said she and her daughter have been enjoying Montreal’s food, taking walks on Mount Royal and basking in their newfound freedom.
Keana, who wore a sparkly purple dress, showed off her ability to count to 10 in French and said her favourite subject in school is basketball.
Despite her gratitude, Rodel said she remains worried about the five other members of the group dubbed Snowden’s “Guardian Angels” — including her daughter’s father and step-siblings — who remain in Hong Kong.
On Wednesday, Rodel and her lawyers issued a new plea to the Canadian government to accept the asylum claims of the remaining “Angels,” who they say face discrimination in Hong Kong for their role in helping Snowden. Four of them, including two young children, have had their asylum claims rejected there and could be deported to Sri Lanka.
“Our family has been divided, and I ask Canada to act now to bring the family together,” Rodel said, adding that she didn’t understand why all the Snowden refugees hadn’t been accepted at the same time.
Rodel and Keana’s arrival at the end of March brought an end to a saga dating back to 2013.
At that time, when Snowden fled to Hong Kong after divulging classified documents from the U.S. National Security Agency, Rodel and a handful of others banded together to help in the whistleblower’s early days as a fugitive, according to their lawyer.
The information Snowden leaked exposed the scope of massive government surveillance operations. He currently lives in Moscow and is wanted in the United States on charges related to the leaks.
The remaining “Angels” have been identified as a couple from Sri Lanka named Supun Kellapatha and Nadeeka Dilrukshi, and their two young children, ages 3 and 7. The fifth is a Sri Lankan soldier who deserted the military. Rodel has said Kellapatha is Keana’s father.
Rodel appeared at the news conference alongside her lawyers, who announced they had filed additional applications last week to have the remaining refugees accepted on humanitarian grounds and for reasons of family reunification.
Lawyer Guillaume Cliche-Rivard said the whole family is suffering psychologically from the separation, and it’s imperative that they are brought together in Canada soon.
“We can’t have a daughter separated from her father for more than two months,” he said. “Even two months is too long, and we need to reunite them as soon as possible.”
He expressed hope that the additional submissions would help boost the family’s existing asylum claim.
Robert Tibbo, a lawyer representing the group, said a recent case in which Germany granted asylum to two Hong Kong activists lends credence to the Snowden group’s claims that they’ve been persecuted by Hong Kong authorities.
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The German decision to grant protection to the two pro-democracy protesters has been interpreted as a manifestation of growing concern over how Hong Kong treats those with dissenting political views.
Tibbo said many countries have been reluctant to accept asylum claims from the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, believing it to be a safe area.
The German decision, and the Hong Kong’s government’s angry response to it, shows the remaining five refugees are “at immediate risk for their safety and security,” he said.
“The Snowden refugees still in Hong Kong are at the mercy of the Hong Kong government, and they’ve been persecuted for the last three years,” he said.” They stand alone compared to the rest of the refugee community.”