An Abbotsford mother and her two sons have joined Langley’s José Figueroa in sanctuary at the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church.
Mariann Juhasz and her sons Patrik, 17, and Tamas, 12, arrived at the church on Nov. 30 after spending 18 days in hiding, fearing they would be arrested by Canadian Border Service Agency officers and deported to their home country of Hungary.
“We asked many churches for sanctuary and they all said no, until we spoke with Pastor Karl Keller (of Walnut Grove Lutheran),” said Patrik.
“Before that we we so scared, living in four different places before coming here. Always watching our back.”
Finally, the family feels safe, he said.
“Once we stepped inside this church, the freedom I felt was like the four years we have lived in Canada,” said Patrik.
With four people now in sanctuary, Walnut Grove Lutheran holds more than 55 per cent of the all the people living in sanctuary in B.C.
On Oct. 21, the CBSA told the family they were scheduled to be deported on Nov. 12. Immigration Canada had rejected Mariann’s request to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds. She fled Hungary four years ago, after finding out her youngest son was being abused by his father. She was estranged from Tamas’ father, but he was still allowed to see his son every second weekend.
The psychological damage of the abuse is documented by therapists Tamas has seen in Canada and by his inability to cope with stress.
When he learned he would be deported, Tamas fainted on the table at the Vancouver CBSA office, said Patrik.
The family claims they banged on the window and screamed for help, but weren’t able to wake Tamas.
“We were so scared. We question why it took them around five minutes to respond,” said Patrik.
An ambulance was called. Tamas could not eat and was throwing up — overcome by fear of being deported, said his brother.
Tamas told his family he would commit suicide before going back to his father in Hungary.
In its decision, the Immigration Review Board member recognized that Tamas had been abused, but noted that Hungary is on Canada’s safe list.
The family’s refugee claim was turned down after the Canadian government deemed that they “would not be subject to risk of persecution, danger of torture, risk to life or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” if they returned to their home country.
“If we go back, the Hungary, police could be waiting for me at the airport to arrest me,” she said.
“Then Tamas will go to live with his father and he will die.”
Fathers have overriding rights in Hungary, she said. Mariann explains that they came to Canada instead of another country in Europe to avoid being arrested. Because of the European Union agreement, police from Hungary have the right and ability to arrest her in any country within the union.
More than 1,000 people have signed a petition asking for the Abbotsford family to be allowed to stay in Canada.
Since they sought sanctuary in the church, friends and co-workers, as well as both boys’ teachers and Mariann’s bosses have stopped by.
“We have had so many people come visit,” said Mariann. “My boss came to say he can offer me full-time if I could (come back to work).”
Before going into hiding, Mariann worked three jobs, including one at the food court at Sevenoaks Mall.
Sevenoaks general manager Wendy Schultz said the Juhasz family has flourished in Canada, with both boys attending school and Mariann working hard to remain self-sufficient.
“We were not collecting welfare, there was no child benefits, my mom paid taxes,” said Patrik. “We were just living a good life, waiting for our papers.”
In Abbotsford, Patrik was involved in football and Tamas played basketball at school.
“The boys are always outside playing sports — always,” said Mariann.
Now they cannot step outside the church or they risk being arrested. Supporters of the family are providing financial aid, food and plenty of support, telling Pastor Karl they will take care of them.
Figueroa said he has been working out with Patrik, “to keep me from getting a belly this Christmas.”
The church, for its part, has embraced the new family. One member of the congregation stopped on Thursday with four boxes of hot pizza.
“The congregation is showing their compassion and their faith,” said Figueroa.
Now awaiting a re-review of his own case, the father of three from El Salvador is helping the Hungarian family look through their deportation order.
The Canadian Border Services Agency issued a warrant for Figueroa’s arrest in October 2013. That was when he sought sanctuary in the church, rather than be deported to Central America.
Figueroa recognizes that it can be a huge burden for a church to take in people seeking sanctuary, but he urges more churches to do so.
Keller looked to scripture to know he as a pastor and man of God must grant this family sanctuary.
But he wonders why a church in Abbotsford didn’t help out.
“I called a bunch of churches in Abbotsford but none would take them,” said Keller. “It is so surprising. They say Abbotsford is the Bible belt and yet it seems to me they are heavy on the belt and light on the Bible.”
In getting to know the family, and hearing how traumatized Tamas is, he questions how CBSA can justify sending that child back to that abuse.
“Section 25 of the Immigration Regulations states the priority in all decisions should be with the children. We don’t see that here. In fact the CBSA is bullying this child,” said Keller.
Since the family came, he has had offers from plumbers and electricians to build another bathroom with a shower to accommodate the growing need. As well as other offers in kind to show the community support around this family and Figueroa.