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Thunder Bay man's potential deportation sparks outpouring of support

Abu Hena Mostofa Kamal, who came to Thunder Bay four years ago as an international student, but ran into trouble financing his education during the pandemic, faces deportation as of Jan. 1.

THUNDER BAY — The potential deportation of an international student who’s become a familiar face to many in Thunder Bay through his volunteering efforts has sparked an outpouring of public support ahead of a crucial hearing scheduled for next week.

Abu Hena Mostofa Kamal, 23, who came to Thunder Bay four years ago as an international student, but ran into trouble financing his education during the COVID-19 pandemic, faces deportation as of Jan. 1 under an exclusion order issued by the Canada Border Services Agency.

He will seek to stay that order at a hearing in federal court in Toronto that’s set to proceed sometime between Dec. 28 and 30.

He’s represented in the case by Jennifer Dagsvik, director of the Newcomer Legal Clinic run out of Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin law school.

The clinic points to Kamal’s “extraordinary contributions to the community” as a frontline worker during the pandemic, a volunteer and community builder, and an entrepreneur.

It argues his situation was caused largely by COVID-related hardships, which according to documents filed by the clinic, resulted in loss of income for his parents that forced them to end their financial support for his education.

“If the COVID pandemic had not struck, there is every reason to believe that Mr. Kamal would have continued with his education, completed his studies, and been on a regular pathway to permanent residence,” Dagsvik wrote in a submission earlier this year.

His situation was also caused in no small part by chronic delays and unresponsiveness of Canada’s immigration system, according to the documents.

Migrants like Kamal face “slow processing, confusing processes, and difficulty making any kind of contact with immigration,” Dagsvik said in an interview.

Kamal has received letters of support from prominent community members including Gary Mack, Jim Stadey, and Tracey MacKinnon.

The letters describe contributions like his efforts to shovel snow for seniors in the city, which the application says helped inspire Age Friendly Thunder Bay’s Snow Angels program, and his work at local shelters and other organizations.

An online petition asking the federal government to stop Kamal’s deportation had gathered over 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

Kamal came to Canada from Chittagong, Bangladesh, in 2018 at the age of 19 to study computer science at Lakehead University. He later switched to business administration after realizing his passion for entrepreneurship.

He also got heavily involved in the community, volunteering with local non-profits and leading initiatives like an annual “Welcome Home” holiday dinner for international students and other newcomers to the city.

Kamal said the move offered him a new chance after a difficult childhood in Bangladesh that involved bullying and harassment due to his visual disability.

“I was a socially shy person, I was a totally different person,” he said. “Living in Thunder Bay has changed me over the years — I started to get involved in community, I started to make friends.”

“It seems to me I found a new home, and this is my home. That’s how I feel it. I have so many good friends [here], some of them are like my family. I can’t think of my life without them.”

In one sign of the network Kamal built with his outsized personality and drive to get involved, community members came through with thousands of dollars through a GoFundMe in 2020 to help him continue studying after his support fell through.

According to submissions filed by the clinic, Kamal would be returning to a country where “he has been targeted and harassed in the past by a senior member of the Bangladesh Student Party League and where he is at risk of violence due to a family land dispute.”

The clinic adds that as someone with a visual impairment, he would face greater stigma, discrimination, and barriers to employment in Bangladesh, referencing research on the issue.

Kamal’s study permit expired in August 2021, and he left his work at Tim Hortons at that time.

Earlier that summer, Kamal had applied for permanent residency through Canada’s temporary resident to permanent resident (TR to PR) pathway program, introduced that year as a temporary pandemic measure.

“The government was trying to get more than 400,000 people a year in at that time for permanent residence, but the borders weren’t really open, so that was tricky,” said Dagsvik.

“So the strategy was to accept a number of people from inside Canada, and one of the ways the government chose to do that was to recognize the work of people who had gone out and faced the public, served the public through the pandemic. And Abu was one of those people.”

His more than one year of full-time equivalent work at Tim Hortons, where he was considered an essential worker during the pandemic, made him eligible to apply.

However, more than a year and a half after applying to the program, he still hasn’t received a response.

Dagsvik argues his deportation should wait until that application has been considered, noting if it had been approved earlier, his status would be restored and he would no longer face deportation.

Before his study permit expired, Kamal also applied for an open work permit while his TR to PR application was being processed, but was refused. The reasons for that still “aren’t terribly clear,” Dagsvik said.

While Kamal waited, he began planning a new “ghost kitchen” venture with two friends called Outsiders.

In May, however, the Canada Border Services Agency issued an exclusion order stating he needed to leave and remain outside of Canada for a year. A request to CBSA to defer the removal was declined.

Dagsvik said the question for the court next week will be whether that decision was reasonable.

“Abu was an international student who fell on hard times during COVID,” she said.

“International students when they come to Canada are expected to … follow a pretty straightforward path from student, to graduate, to worker, to permanent resident. If they diverge in that path — and people have to fall off the path for any number of reasons all the time — we don’t have much of a safety net for them.”

Dagsvik called the situation particularly unfortunate for a city that’s in demographic stasis and desperately trying to attract newcomers.

“I think we know that our economy, our community, our university, our college — they depend in large part on international students,” she said. “So I think it’s really important to have the supports.”

If Kamal is deported, he would be required to stay outside of Canada for at least a year.

“It’s really challenging to get back into Canada once you’ve been removed,” Dagsvik said.

For Kamal, the support from the clinic and those who have signed the online petition means a lot.

“The amount of love I received from the people here is huge,” he said. “That makes me feel really good.”

“I’m hoping decision-makers will let me stay in Thunder Bay and will not force me to go back to Bangladesh … They have the power to fix it.”

Thunder Bay–Superior North MP Patty Hajdu said her office is trying to help.

“We’ve been working with Abu actually over the last six months trying to sort out some of the challenges he’s been having on his immigration. Indeed, he’s had challenges with work visas,” she said Monday. “We’ll continue to be there and to advocate for him as he attempts to stay in Northwestern Ontario.”

She said the outpouring of public support is easy to understand.

“Obviously he’s a huge volunteer, he’s politically engaged, and he has networks of friends and colleagues, and so people care about his outcome," Hajdu said. "That’s particularly challenging for everyone when there’s a threat like the removal of someone who’s become embedded in the community fabric.”

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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