Seeking asylum: How one Roma family fled persecution for safety in Canada

By Adrian Ghobrial

They fear for their lives, the lives of their family members, and have have felt this fear on multiple occasions. That is the reality for a 15-year-old named Jozsef Jr, and his father, also named Jozsef, who say their family of six is fleeing a life of persecution in Hungary and are seeking asylum in Toronto.

CityNews is withholding the families last name and the city they’re from because the family believe they could face punishment in Hungary if they are deported back to the eastern European country.

The whole family identify as Romani or Roma. An ethnic group that has a long history of segregation and torment in Europe dating back as far as the 13th century. Their roots can be traced back to India and Pakistan, however millions now live scattered across much of Europe, including Hungary.

This week on CityNews we’ve been looking into the rising trend of women panhandling on the streets. All claiming to be from Eastern European countries. Many have told us they are Roma and seeking refugee status. Though as many settlement workers have told CityNews, not every Roma trying to claim refugee status in Canada has turned to the streets. Many are simply collecting government assistance, biding their time, waiting for their claim to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee board of Canada. A process CityNews has learned can take years.

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Jozsef, his wife and four kids arrived in Toronto on May 18, 2016. One month earlier in Hungry, Jozsef, his wife and Jozsef Jr., say they were headed to a pizza parlour when they say they were attacked by a group of white supremacists.

“There were three of them…we were walking on the street. They were coming towards us, they saw that we were Roma, they started heckling us saying, ‘What are you doing here? Why are we in Hungary?’ ”

The scene, according to Jozsef, quickly turned ugly.

“They kicked me so hard with boots that my leg shattered in pieces, I went to the hospital, my wife was punched in the face and got a black eye, my son was hit, his forehead was injured.”

That according to Jozsef was the “final straw.”

Jozsef Jr. is currently attending a Toronto high school, where next month the grade 10 student will be sharing his story of being Roma in Hungary, during a school presentation. His favourite course is history, though going to school hasn’t always been a joy. For two years the teen says he attended a segregated school in Hungary.

“When I went to a segregated school they didn’t teach a lot of the curriculum that other schools have like gym and health as well as foreign languages.”

It is now illegal in Hungary to be homeless. Jozsef, his wife and four children claim they lived in a government-issued one room apartment with no running water. The washroom was a “hole in the ground outside.” But according to many Roma, as well as lawyers working with them in Canada, that same government is closing housing filled with Roma, forcing them onto the streets. That’s where many tell us they’re targeted by white supremacists and or arrested by police. Sadly, if you can’t prove that you have a permanent address you can lose your children.

Both father and son say they now suffer from mental and emotional trauma, both are now seeing a psychologist in Toronto.

Their immigration lawyer, Jeffrey Goldman, says that every single Roma refugee who arrives in his office is “battling some form of mental trauma.”

Both Goldman and Andrew Brouwer, a lawyer with Legal Aid Ontario, agree that fears of persecution should they be deported back to Hungary, is a real and present threat.

“Hungary has a right wing government that is no friend of the Roma community. They sometimes say positive things but their actions don’t come anywhere near what the words sometimes say. We know in terms of police protection from violence from skinheads in Hungary is nonexistent,” according to Brouwer.

CityNews has spoken to multiple Roma, who have been waiting from two to six years for their case to be brought before the Immigration and Refugee Board. There’s currently a backlog of more than 51,000 cases.

Brouwer adds, that leaves many in “legal limbo and over the years that can have a devastating impact. Especially on people who have suffered from persecution in their own countries. It adds to the trauma.”

It’s a desperate process that clearly has taken a toll on Jozsef Jr. who told CityNews he has “nightmares” of being sent back.

For a father desperate to keep his family safe, Jozsef says he goes to church every week to pray. Praying to God “that my family can stay in Canada and we get to become citizens.”

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