KOROR CITY, Palau — Thirteen years ago, a small, bearded man was tossed into the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison on suspicions of terrorism. He was eventually declared a non-enemy combatant and given refuge in a glittering island nation in the North Pacific — but he has been longing for a permanent home in a country like Canada ever since.
Davut Abdureham is a Muslim from China’s western region, born into the country’s persecuted ethnic Uighur minority. He and five other freed Uighur men were assured the Republic of Palau would be a pit-stop, a temporary oasis beyond reach of a Communist government keen on punishing them for separatist aspirations.
But on Oct. 31, Abdureham marked the five-year anniversary of his arrival with hopes dying that Canada would emancipate him from the pristine purgatory.
He is the only one left.
Palau has asked Canada to welcome the stateless man and his family. Representatives of President Tommy Remengesau say that if their modest democracy can stand up for human rights against the Asian superpower, so can a country that champions multiculturalism and its charter freedoms.
“I do not see any reason why Canada should fear taking, for example, one of them with the family,” said Rhinehart Silas, a senior Palau official appointed caretaker of the six men. “I think Canada could do its part by offering a little hand.”
Abdureham’s saga began during the United States’ post 9-11 war on terror, when he and a group of fleeing Uighurs were captured in Pakistan and automatically deemed a threat. They were imprisoned in the Guantanamo detention centre, until a Washington court ordered their release in 2008 because they had no ties to al-Qaida or the Taliban.
The U.S. helped the 22 men find safe havens around the world, because it feared they would be tortured or executed if returned to China, which blames them for violent unrest. Abdureham was among those welcomed by Palau, a Micronesian archipelago, population 21,500.
U.S. diplomats had travelled to Ottawa on several occasions in 2005 and 2006 requesting that Canada open its doors to the refugees. They were turned down.
Over the last five years, Canada was again approached about specifically resettling the Palau Uighurs, Silas said. He and the president’s deputy chief of staff, Rebluud Kesolei, met with The Canadian Press in the main town of Koror, but they declined to divulge details of the meetings.
Abdureham, now 40, confirmed in an interview that an application was submitted on his behalf, but he has never heard back from Canada’s immigration gatekeepers.
He said a man from the Canadian embassy in Manila met with him in 2012 for 50 minutes. The official asked questions, took notes and explained he would route the application appropriately, Abdureham recalled.
He has been waiting ever since.
“No, no. Canada I not hope,” the man said in broken English, as dusk fell and cicadas chirped behind the community college where he works as a security guard.
“When we meet, the man told me ‘one month.’ He said, ‘I go back to Manila, send papers back to Canada. One month they will decide, minister will decide.’ But now almost two years. Nothing.”
The former fur trader has pretty much given up on the Canadian option and is looking for a permanent home where he can ply a new trade and unite with his wife and three toddlers. Relatives living abroad arranged the marriage and his wife has made sporadic visits over the years.
He can only speculate about why his application met a dead end.
“Lawyer told me, maybe they have business between China with the government.”
His island guardians also believe that Canada’s unwillingness to perturb China has played a role in hampering any offer of asylum.
The greatest obstacle to relocating the Uighurs has been “countries like yours who are not willing to take them,” said Patrick Tellei, president of Palau Community College and a respected community leader. “You’re scared of China. That’s the simple truth.”
Tellei was one of three delegates who visited the Uighurs at Guantanamo before extending the invitation for temporary residency in Palau. His culture has a strong tradition of caring for marginalized people, he said, adding he became the group’s closest confidant and could “definitely say” Canada was high on their list.
“I would come up with places. Many countries they would say, ‘No, no Muslim population,'” he said. “But when I brought up Canada, we had a lot of discussion. At least for one, (he) knew some people and if he was allowed to go there, probably would have a good start. Of course, that didn’t come about.”
Tellei admits to strong suspicions that accepting the Uighurs hurt Palau’s business dealings with Mainland China.
Construction suddenly stopped on a vacation hotel being built by a Chinese company just after the men arrived. And when Chinese officials repatriated the body of a mariner shot dead by the Palau coast guard over a fishing dispute, Tellei observed an elaborate banner unfurled at its airport that essentially read: “You are illegally harbouring terrorists.”
He, too, encouraged Canada to step up, “if they believe in human rights.”
“If Palau can take on six and Bermuda can take (four), but a large country like Canada would not even bend an inch to take these people? It’s unthinkable.”
Canada’s Immigration Department confirmed the U.S. had been in contact about the Palau Uighurs, but it wouldn’t comment specifically for privacy reasons.
U.S. statesmen and pro bono lawyers have tried to spearhead relocating all the Palau Uighurs, although officials refused to disclose, for their security, where or how the other five each got passage over the past two years.
It’s not clear why Abdureham’s case has stalled.
Washington-based lawyer George Clarke, his representative since 2004, said the biggest reason could be because the United States itself would not give the men a home.
“That this is big bad China and China shut this thing down, is that a factor? Yes,” he said. “But if you’re on the foreign ministry of any of these countries, … this is just a little bit more difficult than they want to deal with.”
Clarke’s counterpart in Toronto has sought answers from the Canadian government.
Abdureham has learned English and has become familiar with a western lifestyle. He loves cold places, happily recalling that when he washed his face in his homeland and then touched metal, his skin would stick.
He has been unable to put dark memories of his wrongful detention in Guantanamo behind him.
“We are free. Me free. Free, but I am still here.”
He may have been released, but without a permanent home or passport, he still feels like a prisoner.
“Maybe I move to third country, then maybe I forget. Maybe new life. I want to forget here, but cannot. Because I am still here.”