When Ruth Beardsley first heard the story of how Zeynab Mohamed’s baby girl had to be left behind in Kenya, she had no idea she’d end up on a plane to Africa and, ultimately, be featured in a documentary film about the ordeal.
She also didn’t know a strong friendship would be formed with Mohamed, a mother of six who lives in the Strawberry Hill area.
In 2008, Mohamed was a recent refugee who had resettled in Surrey through the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, and attended the First Steps settlement program at Options Community Services, where Beardsley worked as program manager.
One day, a group of moms got talking about the birth of their babies.
“Zeynab had a child on her lap and, well, she started to cry while talking about the birth of a baby, and we thought it was the child on her lap, but it was not — it was this child she had to, unfortunately, leave behind in Kenya,” Beardsley recalled. “I had no idea how difficult it was for a family to get reunited after family members are left behind, even a child that’s two months old that’s, you know, no threat to the country.”
After fleeing civil war in her native Ethiopia, Mohamed attempted to immigrate to Canada with her five children. During the immigration process, she became pregnant with a sixth child, Nasteha. Ultimately, she was forced to leave the girl behind when she exited a refugee camp in Kenya for a plane to Canada.
It was an impossible choice, but Mohamed left her youngest daughter in the care of her sister, Ebla. Mohamed’s husband, Abdullahi, who was denied entry into Canada, was also there for support.
“I sort of took the lead on advocating for the unification of Zeynab and Nasteha,” Beardsley explained. “We went to lawyers and it was so frustrating, because we were told to wait and wait. It’s not a clear process. I remember leaving the lawyer’s office one day saying, ‘If we ever get this paperwork, I’m going to go get her myself.’ You know, it just seems so difficult that I wanted to see it through, I guess.”
With Mohamed too ill with asthma to fly, and with five other children to care for, Beardsley eventually got on a plane to Nairobi to gain young Nasteha’s trust and reunite her with her mother in Canada.
A camera crew, led by her filmmaker son Hunter Wood, followed Beardsley to create what became a documentary film, My Heart in Kenya, released in 2016.
On Wednesday evening (June 20), the hour-long movie will be shown in Surrey for the first time, at city hall’s Centre Stage theatre in an event presented by Options Community Services, United Way, City of Surrey and Children’s Partnership. Admission is free.
“The documentary is a rare look at the personal reunification story of a family that has settled in Surrey,” according to an event post at facebook.com/surreylip. Registration details are posted at eventbrite.ca.
Beardsley, now retired and living in Richmond, is writing a children’s book about her experience and the issues involved, and United Way last year created a Family Reunification Fund in her honour.
“The story strikes a chord with people,” she said. “It’s so hard to believe that this happens because of Canadian government policy, one that’s restricting a baby born during the waiting period so (parents) can not bring the child here with them. That’s something that needs to be addressed.”
During filming for the movie, Nasteha was nearly four years of age, and didn’t know she had another family in Canada.
“She was being raised by her aunt, and she had this whole attachment to this other mom that she’s going to have to break,” Beardsley recalled. “So there were issues like that, about her being separated from the only mother she’s known.”
In Surrey on Wednesday, Beardsley will be at the 6:30 p.m. event for a post-screening Q&A session, as will Mohamed and members of her family, including Nasteha, who is now 10 years of age and in Grade 4.
“She like Canada, but misses her mom in Africa, my sister. And daddy not here,” Mohamed told the Now-Leader.
“She like math, and she like playing with toys, and she’s talking good,” her mother added.
“And she likes to read books, too. She happy.”
As a social services worker, Beardsley enjoyed a 42-year career “so rewarding and meaningful, with many accomplishments,” she said.
“The reunification of this family (which involved the help of many people to make it happen) has certainly been an unplanned, incredible highlight. While I feel very happy for Zeynab, I feel sadness for the many other people who are in this situation and may have no one to advocate on their behalf.”
My Heart in Kenya is shown in schools and settlement organizations across Canada and the world, “with the goal of raising awareness for the struggles and hardships that refugee families endure,” according to a post at creativesurplus.ca.