Elisangela Fernandes was just 16 when she and her younger sisters were sent to Canada as refugees. They didn't want to leave Angola. But they had no choice.
Police had just arrested and murdered their father, a suspected rebel sympathizer. They later torched the family's two-room home in the capital, Luanda. The stress of being arrested had caused their mother to have a stroke and she was in a wheelchair, unable to care for the girls.
"We didn't want to leave, but my mother said it would be safer for us to come here. So we obeyed her order. African children must obey. It's not like here, where teens are more rebellious. Here they get away with everything," explained Ms. Fernandes, now 18. She and her sisters cried every night when they first arrived in Toronto in October, 2002, after filing asylum claims at the Buffalo border crossing.
Now, two years later, the girls, who wear basketball sneakers, jeans, hoop earrings and their long hair in meticulous plaits, finally have something to celebrate.
Although the acceptance rate for Angolan refugees has declined since the end of the country's 30-year civil war, it took Immigration and Refugee Board member Karen Michnick just two hours to rule that Ms. Fernandes and her sisters Yara, 16, and Claudia, 13, and their cousin Sayur, 19, deserved Canada's protection. She made her ruling on April Fool's Day.
"We were so happy. We called my mother to tell her," Ms. Fernandes said.
The Fernandes girls, whose case was first profiled earlier this year in a Globe and Mail feature on child refugees, believe their claim succeeded because it is true. It was also well-documented, unlike claims from some minors who do not know why their parents sent them to Canada, or who don't have documents to prove their identity.
Ms. Fernandes told the IRB she fears that she and her family would be targets of retribution if sent back to Luanda, where they had denounced their father's murder, which occurred just before the ceasefire. They worried as well about falling prey to prostitution rings that target adolescent girls, a problem so common it has its own name: catorzinhas ("little 14-year-olds" in Portuguese).
"I was confident our case would be accepted. We also prayed a lot," Ms. Fernandes said. Her sister Claudia added: "We were inspired by the rap singer Nas and his song I Know I Can Be What I Want To Be."
A growing number of unaccompanied minors are filing claims in Canada -- 657 last year, compared with 195 in 1997 -- and these cases can be tough to prove.
"Often children aren't consistent in their testimony. They don't have the same frame of mind as adults," said Loly Rico, co-founder of Hamilton House refugee support group. "We worried the girls would lose the case because the war in Angola is over, even though the country still isn't safe for them."
With Ms. Rico's help, the girls submitted birth certificates and school records to prove they were in Angola at the time of their father's death, as well as their father's death certificate and mother's medical records.
"Although the peace agreement between the government and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola was signed in 2002, the girls would still be at risk because they are political dissidents," said Maureen Silcoff, their lawyer. "As well, they are vulnerable to . . . prostitution."
The next hurdle the girls face is being reunited with their mother.
Under the Immigration and Refugee act, children cannot include their parents on applications for landed-immigrant status. Applicants may include only spouses and children. That means the girls must wait until they are 19, and financially self-sufficient, to sponsor their ailing mother.
"We would have to drop out of school and get a job to bring my mother here," said Ms. Fernandes, who is completing Grade 11. "I never asked to become my sisters' mother. And already, I don't get to live as freely as other teenagers."
Ms. Silcoff believes unaccompanied minors should be able to sponsor parents: "These kids have already suffered, and this creates a further hardship for them."
A Citizenship and Immigration Canada official said the girls' mother could apply to Canada on humanitarian grounds.
"The parent could also make a refugee claim from abroad," said CIC's Tsering Naglu. "The new immigration act even more than the old one has incorporated the idea of taking into consideration the best interests of the child."
But Max Berger, an immigration lawyer who has represented many unaccompanied minors, believes this is flawed. "A child who has been granted refugee status should automatically have the right to be reunited with his or her parents."
The girls would never have made it this far if it weren't for the help of Ms. Rico and her husband Francisco, who have acted as surrogate parents and who celebrated the IRB victory over pizza and cake. The Fernandes sisters live in a home owned by the refugee shelter, and every afternoon at 3:30 p.m., Claudia goes to the Ricos' house to do her homework.
Ms. Fernandes is thankful for the chance to get an education in Canada. So is Claudia, who wants to be a pediatrician. But she would never have chosen to come here. They all miss the salty sea and tropical fruits of their homeland, the vibrant desert sunflowers, and semba music. Most of all, they miss their parents. "You carry so much of your country in your heart," Ms. Fernandes said.