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The Globe and Mail

Autistic girl’s future up in the air as family set to be deported from U.S., refused entry to Canada

Sabreena Shabdeen's family has an awful choice to make. If she is returned to Canada next week, it will be without the parents who have been her supporters, caregivers and advocates since she was born in Toronto 17 years ago.

Sabreena is severely autistic. She can barely speak and, according to medical reports, is prone to "aggressive, agitative and assaultive" behaviour. But she is a Canadian. And her parents, Kairun and Mohamed Shabdeen, believe Canada offers her a better chance of a decent life than Sri Lanka, the country to which they are about to be deported.

The Shabdeens currently live in New Jersey. They moved to the United States in 1998 after Canadian authorities rejected the refugee claim they filed when they landed here in 1992. Sabreena, who was 2, went with them.

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Now the American authorities have told Mr. and Ms. Shabdeen to appear, with passports in hand, at an immigration office on Jan. 3 for imminent deportation.

"There is a mental hospital in Sri Lanka but there are no services for autistic children," Sabreena's mother said in a telephone interview. "I have seen some autistic children in my country but they are always home."

There is also some debate about whether the country would allow someone who is so severely disabled to move there on a permanent basis. Questions about residency requirements that were put to the Sri Lankan High Commission by The Globe and Mail have gone unanswered.

Two Canadian agencies have indicated they would like to evaluate Sabreena over the course of three months to develop a "life care plan" to determine the best placement for her.

They say they need her parents to stay with her during that time to act as her interpreters and to provide emotional assistance. But Canada has denied the Shabdeens' requests for permits to enter the country on a temporary basis.

"I am not satisfied there is sufficient evidence your need to enter Canada is compelling enough to warrant issuing a temporary resident permit," William Hawke, a supervisor with the Citizenship and Immigration Canada, wrote in letters to Mr. and Ms. Shabdeen on Oct. 12.

"There is considerable risk you will remain in Canada permanently," wrote Mr. Hawke, who said he did not understand why the assessment could not have been done from the United States.

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Sabreena's parents have appealed the rejection of the temporary residence permit but could be on a plane to Sri Lanka before that case can be heard. Ms. Shabdeen said, if permitted to come to Canada, she and her husband would stay only as long as the permit allows. "We would go back to my country and try to get a visa to come and visit her all the time."

Laurie Beachell, the national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said in a telephone interview that, as a Canadian citizen, Sabreena has every right to live in Canada and to be provided with the services that are available.

"Here is a family with some really difficult decisions to make," said Mr. Beachell. "If they can't come to Canada to set that service up, what do they do? Take her to the border and drop her off? Frankly that will be a nightmare."

Montreal lawyer David Cohen, who is representing Sabreena, said Mr. and Ms. Shabdeen voluntarily left Canada when requested to do so in the past and there is no indication that they would refuse to do so in the future. In addition, Mr. Cohen said, there is an enforcement apparatus that could be used to remove them if they tried to stay.

Sabreena "has the same rights as my 17-year-old daughter has as a Canadian citizen. And if this was my daughter, or any Canadian's daughter, they would want the best possible care and treatment and opportunity for her in the world," Mr. Cohen said. "And Canada is a place that would offer her a much better quality of life that Sri Lanka. And I think it is very difficult for anyone to argue otherwise."

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