Skip to main content

Wafa Mustafa and her father in Beirut in 2013, a few days before his disappearance.Handout

Wafa Mustafa, a prominent Syrian activist living in Germany, says Canada has denied her application to visit her mom and sister because officials only see her as a refugee.

Ms. Mustafa fled to Turkey from Syria with her mom and youngest sister in 2013 after her father, Ali, was forcibly disappeared into one of Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. Ms. Mustafa has not heard from her dad since, and has dedicated her life to campaigning for his release and advocating for others who have disappeared in Syria.

The 31-year-old applied for a visitor visa (also known as a temporary resident visa) to see her mom and youngest sister, who now live in Canada. (Ms. Mustafa has another sister living in the United States.) The letter she received from an official explains they are not satisfied Ms. Mustafa will leave the country at the end of her stay “based on your personal assets and financial status,” because of her family ties in Canada and her employment situation. It says she can reapply, but that a new application must be accompanied by a new processing fee.

She called the rejection letter “very dehumanizing.” Ms. Mustafa said she has asylum status in Germany, where she has lived since 2016, and that it would not make sense to go through that stressful process all over again in Canada.

She and her mom and sister fled to Turkey with nothing but their passports. There, Ms. Mustafa worked as an editor for a couple of media outlets, including Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a citizen journalist group that reported on the Syrian war. After journalists with that organization were targeted and killed, members were offered protection in Germany, she said, but the offer was not extended to her mother and sibling. Ms. Mustafa went to Germany, and two years later her mom and sister went to Canada. She has not seen them for three years, and described the separation as devastating.

In a statement, Aidan Strickland, a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said “we sympathize with Ms. Mustafa’s situation and recognize that the process to obtain a temporary resident visa can be long and difficult.” She said the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada officer evaluating the application was not satisfied Ms. Mustafa would leave at the end of her stay, and that “the onus is on the applicant to satisfy an IRCC officer that they meet the requirements.”

When it comes to her employment status, one of the reasons cited for her rejection, Ms. Mustafa said she chose to be a freelancer “because I decided to dedicate my life to the search of my father and, unfortunately, it’s not a paid job.”

A full-time career would not leave her enough time to campaign for her father’s release and for Syria’s disappeared, she added. “I decided to compromise my stability in my career in my future to do this. ... I only live today to find my dad and to campaign for his release.”

Ms. Mustafa said her dad had been detained twice before, having spoken out against the Assad regime and about how Syrians deserve freedom and democracy rather than dictatorship.

“It’s sad that now I need to convince the world that I deserve to see my mom. It’s really sad and it says a lot about who we are and about our world.”

Balkees Jarrah, interim director, international justice, at Human Rights Watch, said her organization has worked closely with Ms. Mustafa – “a respected human-rights advocate” who is well known for her “courageous and powerful public campaign for her father.”

“We are dismayed at Canada’s refusal to grant her a visa to visit her mother and sister in Toronto. The Canadian visa office provided only boilerplate rejection language, but not any reasons or details specific to Wafa’s case,” she said.

Preventing Ms. Mustafa from seeing her family “is needlessly adding to the pain that Wafa has experienced as a result of the Syrian conflict.”

Wafa Mustafa fled to Turkey from Syria with her mom and youngest sister in 2013 after her father, Ali, was forcibly disappeared into one of Bashar al-Assad’s prisons.Handout

Ms. Jarrah said Ms. Mustafa is firmly resettled in Germany and that her advocacy has informed “a wide audience about the fate of tens of thousands of detainees who Syrian government authorities have abused, tortured, or killed over the last decade.”

“Syrian activists like Wafa have been central [to] not only pressing for justice for these abuses but also laying the groundwork that makes justice possible. For the time being we are liaising with Wafa, who is now receiving legal advice in the hopes of achieving a different result.”

Ms. Mustafa said she doesn’t see herself as just a refugee, but it feels as if the Canadian government is “imposing this identity on me.”

“To them obviously I’m not an activist. I’m not a human. I’m not a daughter of a detainee. I’m not a daughter of a mother. I’m nothing but a refugee.”

For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.