A risky decision to cross the Peace Arch border in South Surrey in 2017 could have led to deportation for Ashki Shkur and her family.
Refugees from Iraq, Shkur says they found it difficult to stay in the U.S. during the Trump presidency and decided to risk entering Canada illegally.
After crossing, the family of four, was quickly taken into custody and faced the very real threat of being removed from the country. But following pleas from educators, employers and the community, the family was granted permanent residency on compassionate grounds in 2019.
Now 18, Shkur is fulfilling all of her dreams, one by one.
A graduate of Britannia Secondary in East Vancouver, she will be attending UBC with a full-ride, $80,000 scholarship through the Centennial Scholars Entrance Award, which she chose from among several scholarships she was offered.
Her plan is to get a degree in sciences, then go to medical school to accomplish her life-long desire of becoming a surgeon.
Reaching this point after escaping Iraq, is “the ultimate dream” for Shkur, whose own parents had to stop attending school in Grade 6.
“My dad had to start working and my mom had to stop going to school because of gender-based persecution,” she explained.
The thought of their daughter not being able to continue her education was a fate her parents would do anything to fight.
Watching the news in Kurdistan, the family heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declare: “Canada’s arms are open to refugees and Canada is an accepting place.”
Their sights were now set on settling in Canada, but they had to travel to the U.S. for their first stop.
The family arrived in the U.S. in February 2016 and tried to enter Ontario the same day.
“I remember this exact phrase, it was the only phrase I knew in English, it was my job to memorize it and ask the police officer, ‘Can we seek asylum?”
The response, however, was not what they’d hoped for. Because of the safe third country rule, the Shkur family was told that they would not be given refugee protection in Canada because they were entering by land and would have to wait in the U.S. a whole year before they could enter the country legally.
“Everything was great until President Donald Trump came and he threatened seven countries, including Iraq. At that time, we didn’t have anything, we didn’t have a green card. All we had was work permits and study permits … we could have been deported and we really couldn’t risk that,” Shkur said.
The family had not yet been in the U.S. for a full year, but, scared for their safety, they decided to cross the Peace Arch border illegally.
With the threat of deportation hanging over them, the family began the process of applying for permanent residency on compassionate grounds.
Shkur and her younger sister enrolled in school and their parents began working right away in Canada to prove to the government that they would be an asset to the country.
After “working 10 times as hard, and my parents working multiple jobs,” the Shkur family were able to get letters of support from teachers, employers and other community members, supporting their bid for permanent residency.
“It was an actual miracle that we even got a visa to America,” she said. “It’s very hard for people in Middle Eastern countries to get into Western countries – especially at that time, due to the war that was happening, there were a lot of conflicts.”
The next step for the family is to apply for citizenship, which they are planning to do next year. Shkur now also has a three-year-old sister, who was born in Canada.
Last week, after her story appeared in media reports, Shkur began seeing negative comments online, with people saying ‘send her back, deport her back to where she came from’, which Shkur described as “truly heartbreaking, because we had to leave everything to come to this country for us to have a better education, for us to live a safer life.”
Shkur’s mom is taking time to care for Shkur’s youngest sister and has plans to attend an adult education centre to receive her high school diploma. Her father works as a landscaper while their other daughter is still in school.
The 18-year-old has taken on every leadership opportunity available to her at Britannia Secondary and throughout the community, including student council president, ambassador for Girls Can Talk Society, which provides a space for girls to engage in conversations freely, and as founder of the Ripple Effect, where young people get together to address humanitarian and environmental issues.
Shkur’s grades have averaged 97 per cent her final year of high school.
“I’m super, super grateful for all these opportunities and to be able to go to university without having to worry about the financial stuff, but I will continue to give back to this country and I will continue to fight for my dreams and work towards my dream in order to become a surgeon and later give back to Canadians,” she said.