TORONTO – The Harper government faces growing criticism for its refusal to grant humanitarian visas that would allow injured children from the Gaza conflict to be treated in Ontario.
The idea came from Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza-born doctor who is now a professor at the University of Toronto.
Abuelaish originally proposed transporting 100 children and won support for his project from five hospitals, the Ontario Minster of Health and several volunteers who offered accommodation for family members accompanying the wounded.
Ottawa declined his request, arguing the children would be better off staying close to home for treatment.
Undaunted, Abuelaish travelled to Gaza in August to identify victims who could benefit from Ontario health care. He brought back several case studies, including four members of the el Namleh family who were all badly wounded in a bombing. Three-year-old Sharif had to have a leg amputated and suffered serious injuries to an eye and ear. His 10-year-old sister Shahad has second- and third-degree burns all over her body.
In an interview in his university office, Abuelaish said the children could be effectively treated in Ontario, with plastic surgeons able to greatly reduce their scarring.
“I feel the pain of these children. I feel the need,” he said.
Now he has scaled back his proposal, pleading that at least a handful of the neediest be transported.
“Whatever is there, we need to start.”
Global News asked a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird whether Ottawa would have a change of heart. The ministry issued a statement, standing firm:
“We applaud the humanitarian instincts of those who want to assist victims of Hamas…
Those who want their support to have the greatest impact must recognise the importance of ensuring innocent victims receive the medical support they need close to their families and loved ones, and that includes avoiding the medical risks and dangers of being transported overseas.”
Abuelaish said the victims are at greater risk in Gaza, where medical facilities are damaged and overwhelmed.
The NDP has written to both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, demanding that the government support Abuelaish’s efforts.
“It’s very unfortunate and it underlies the ways in which our government does not listen,” said NDP Multiculturalism Critic Andrew Cash.
Despite the frustration Abuelaish is determined to continue to press his case.