A Toronto woman is stuck in Moscow and her family is desperately appealing to the federal government to bring her home — all because of what they claim is a simple clerical error.
Gyulzar Julia Yakobi, 56, travelled to Russia as a Canadian permanent resident on July 25, her family said, to seek private care for a medical condition that’s been growing worse over the past several months and for which she couldn’t get a diagnosis here.
Yakobi’s permanent resident card expired in December, but she decided to make the trip anyway due to her illness. It isn’t illegal; permanent residents with expired cards can obtain travel documents once abroad that allow them to return.
But when the mother and grandmother applied for those documents, she received a reply from the Canadian embassy that shocked her: according to the government, she hasn’t spent enough time in Canada in recent years to retain her residency status.
That’s just not true, she and her family say.
‘This is absurd’
“We actually laughed it off in the beginning because we thought, ‘Well this is absurd, this doesn’t make any sense,'” her daughter, Nargis Hannah Yakobi, who is a Canadian citizen, told CBC News.
She said she asked her mother: “Did they even look into your papers?”
She’s known at the condo building where she lived.
The property manager at Yakobi’s condo building has told CBC News the 56-year-old officially moved in in September 2013 and has been helping to lead an art exhibit in the building since 2014.
“With property management, there’s the residents you don’t mind seeing because they don’t cause much grief and Julia is definitely one of them. She’ll pop in just to say ‘hi’ or stop me in the hallway… I have staff members who know her schedule practically, they’re so used to seeing her come in and out of the building,” Giovanna Costa said.
“I’m speechless, I truly am at a loss for words. It’s unfathomable because she definitely has been here.”
Chris Halliday, a former concierge at the building who’s since joined its management team, says he’s had consistent contact with Yakobi since he began working there in 2013.
“I’ve had many interactions with her, from booking boardrooms to meeting rooms to helping her with the displays of the art in the lobby of the building, almost on a daily basis,” he said, adding he last saw Yakobi there in early July.
Asked if he thought the government’s count of 65 days was accurate, Halliday responded, “That’s absolutely ridiculous and there’s no possibility. No, not a chance.”
‘People have seen her … we’ve taken pictures’
Not only was Yakobi unable to return to Canada without the documentation, she also learned she’d been stripped of her permanent residency status.
According to the Canadian government, Yakobi has spent just 65 days out of the last five years in Canada — far short of the 730-day minimum required for permanent residency. It’s a claim she and her family say is simply false.
“She’s been living here for 3 1/2 years,” her daughter told CBC News. “People have seen her — people in her building have seen her, all of her friends, our family. She’s been to my wedding last year. We’ve taken pictures”
An expired permanent residency card doesn’t mean a person has lost their status as a permanent resident. That can only happen if an inquiry determines someone no longer fits the status or, as in Yakobi’s case, a visa officer determines someone doesn’t meet the requirements at the time of applying for a travel document.
CBC News obtained permission from Yakobi and her daughter to get information about her case directly from the government, and has learned her last documented entry into Canada was on June 11, 2013.
Yakobi maintains she’s spent 1,240 days out of the last five years here, and has filed phone records, apartment leases and tax returns in an attempt to show the government that someone, somewhere has made a serious error.
The government has told Yakobi her file has been reviewed and her only recourse now is to go through an appeals process, which can take up to three years.
“I couldn’t understand why we had to file an appeal because we didn’t do anything wrong,” Nargis said. “What exactly are we appealing? Their mistake?”
Unless a person has been in Canada once in the last 365 days, they are not automatically guaranteed a travel document to return for their appeal. Yakobi is adamant that she left Canada in July, which, if true, would mean that she qualifies.
‘What exactly are we appealing? Their mistake?’ – Nargis Hannah Yakobi
The government may also issue travel documents after a year has elapsed and an appeal has not yet been heard, if it deems a person’s presence is required in order to conduct their appeal.
Nevertheless, Yakobi’s family has filed an appeal in a bid to get the 56-year-old home as soon as possible. It was officially stamped received on Aug. 30. In the meantime, she continues to languish in Moscow.
With an appeal filed, “she would be entitled to a travel document to allow her to return home to Canada pending the outcome of the appeal,” a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News in an email Friday.
But her family has been told there’s no guarantee Yakobi will be able to come back to hear the appeal, and she has not yet been issued travel papers.
‘All my life is there’
Throughout her mother’s ordeal, Nargis said her mind keeps travelling back to when she first moved to Canada about a decade ago.
“I still remember the guy and his name, Peter, at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and I will never forget the words that he told us when we arrived: ‘You are now home and you will be safe.'”
What she hopes now is that that promise will help bring Yakobi home before any more time passes with her alone without her immediate family. In her absence, Yakobi’s grandson has already started walking. Nargis said she also worries being gone so long will mean she’ll soon have no job to come back to.
“Presently, I’m stranded in Moscow, Russia, without a place to live, money to eat, clothes to wear,” the 56-year-old wrote in a letter to the embassy Friday. “I live in Canada and all my life is there.”
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