A family that helped shelter whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong in 2013 has landed in Canada and is looking forward to beginning an “extraordinarily normal life” in Montreal, says a refugee advocacy group.
Marc-André Séguin with For the Refugees said Supun Thilina Kellapatha, Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis and their children, Sethumdi and Dinath, are settling into their new apartment in the city after arriving Tuesday night from Toronto.
Séguin, who is also a lawyer, said the family is jet-lagged and exhausted but thrilled to have been granted asylum.
“After years and years of waiting, to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, to finally have the expectation of a better life, of safety and of having their stateless children recognized and acknowledged by a state was a tremendous moment for them,” Séguin said Wednesday in an interview.
The family’s arrival in Canada is the culmination of a long saga going back to 2013.
The family members are among the seven people dubbed “guardian angels” who offered help and shelter to Snowden when he fled to Hong Kong after leaking classified documents from the U.S. National Security Agency, which exposed the scope of massive government surveillance operations.
Séguin said the helpers were all asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. While their involvement was originally kept quiet, he said the 2016 film “Snowden,” directed by Oliver Stone, brought them notoriety and made the process of claiming official refugee status — which is already extremely difficult in Hong Kong — nearly impossible.
The aid group ultimately decided on Quebec as a destination, Séguin said, because it’s safe and because the province has a program that accepts privately sponsored refugees without requiring they get official designation from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
Two of the other “Snowden refugees” — Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana — landed in Montreal in 2019, and the last remaining member of the group remains in Hong Kong awaiting approval to come to Canada.
Snowden said on Twitter Tuesday the family’s arrival is “the best news I’ve heard in a long, long time,” and he thanked those that helped the family.
“We need to bring one more home before we can say we’re done, but I cannot thank you enough for bringing us this far,” he wrote. Séguin would not confirm whether Snowden has direct contact with any of the families.
Séguin said the new arrivals are looking forward to an “extraordinarily normal life” that includes being able to work and go to school, and the children, aged five and almost 10, getting their first photo IDs.
“They’ll get to open bank accounts, they’ll get to work,” he said. “The children are acknowledged by a state for the first time in their life. They’ll have their first photo IDs.
“All these day-to-day mundane things we all take for granted but for them are really extraordinary right now.”
The lawyer said the good news of the family’s arrival is overshadowed by the fact the final member of the group, Ajith Pushpakumara, remains in Hong Kong in a situation he described as “fragile.”
Séguin said the group doesn’t understand why it has taken the Canadian government so long to approve the claims, which were filed in early 2017, nor why some members of the group have been approved more quickly than others.
“Canada did an extraordinary thing in admitting six of the seven Snowden refugees,” he said. “It’s time to do one more thing and let the seventh one in as soon as possible.”
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press