Canadians across the country welcomed the news last week that Vanessa Rodel and her young daughter, Keana, had finally found shelter in Montreal. They are two of “Snowden’s angels,” asylum-seekers whose kindness in sheltering the U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower in Hong Kong placed them in the world’s eye. Had they been deported to the Philippines, a dangerous abuser waited for them. Their resettlement in Canada assured their physical safety and allows Keana to finally have a real childhood.
But their gratitude is tempered by the peril faced by the five others who remain in Hong Kong, including Keana’s father and half-siblings. Canada may be the only hope for safety for these people. Like Keana and her mother, they are in great danger due to the unfailing generosity they showed in admitting one of the most wanted men in the world into their homes.
Six years ago, the lawyer for Vanessa and Keana asked them to shelter another asylum-seeker, a young American named Edward Snowden. Vanessa welcomed Snowden into their tiny apartment. A day later, she learned from a newspaper how important her protection was. Snowden had just come forward as the person who had famously blown the whistle on the U.S. government’s mass surveillance infrastructure.
Snowden spent two weeks in Hong Kong’s slums, ferried between other asylum-seekers who welcomed him into their homes. After he left Vanessa’s apartment, he found shelter with Supun Kellapatha, Keana’s father, and his present partner, Nadeeka. Each had fled death threats in Sri Lanka. They met in Hong Kong, and now have two children — Dinath and Sethumdi — Keana’s half-brother and -sister, both stateless. Another brave man, Ajith Debagama Kankanamalage, sheltered Snowden and helped him move through the slums. He had fled Sri Lanka after more than a decade of physical and sexual torture at the hands of the military.
When Snowden left Hong Kong, his angels remained, still in limbo but glad to have helped another person who feared persecution. They kept close the secret of their contact with him. Their acts of kindness would only be known to the world following the release of Oliver Stone’s thriller Snowden. Unfortunately, their abusers also took notice.
Vanessa had fled the Philippines from a powerful sexual abuser. The publicity of the Snowden refugees’ acts of kindness, and their location, made her fear for her life. Police from the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department came to the slums of Hong Kong to search for the five Sri Lankans who helped Snowden, carrying their photographs, in late 2016. Ajith’s family in Sri Lanka faced repeated visits from the military, with many more after his story became public.
Hong Kong rejected their asylum applications in late 2016. Since that time, they have lived in peril of deportation into the hands of the abusers they so fear. Ajith, physically and psychologically scarred from his experience in Sri Lanka, spiralled into acute post-traumatic stress disorder when he heard of his rejection. Supun, too, has experienced grave mental distress in Hong Kong and was hospitalized twice last month.
Their Canadian lawyers, anticipating rejection by Hong Kong, helped find Canadian sponsors with the non-profit organization For the Refugees and applied for protection. Canada’s refugee resettlement program is a bright spot in a world rapidly losing compassion, but the waiting times are long. In the meantime, Snowden’s “angels” are sinking into despair, and their children are losing precious years of childhood. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly appealed to Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen, to accelerate consideration of these claims, but the authorities have declined to do so.
While Vanessa and Keana restart their lives in Montreal, Supun, Nadeeka, Ajith and the other children could be deported to Sri Lanka at any time.
It’s in Canada’s discretion to open its doors to these five immediately. Extending such protection may be the only way to save these selfless individuals and reunite Keana with her family.