Refugee claimant denied cancer drugs asks government to bring family to Canada

The Saskatoon refugee claimant whose cancer drug claims were rejected by the federal government has one request.

“Please allow my wife and sons to come to Canada. Don’t worry about my medical care,” Saleem Akhtar said Sunday from his Royal University Hospital bed.

“They threaten them. They kidnap boys like that to be suicide bombers. They are not in a safe place.

“There are good people in the Canadian government. I hope they will help.”

Akhtar’s case was brought to light by a nun who worked with him during one of his recent chemotherapy sessions. The Pakistani man was diagnosed with spleen and pancreatic cancer shortly after arriving in Saskatoon in June. He begins another round of chemotherapy later this month.

“The people here are all wonderful and I am very lucky,” Akhtar said. “I am trying to be happy, but I am quite depressed.”

The provincial NDP and then Premier Brad Wall chastised the federal changes from earlier this year to reduce health coverage to refugee claimants such as Akhtar.

“It’s unbelievable that some of the decisions that have been taken federally are having this impact on people who are clearly the most vulnerable,” Wall said last month.

The federal government has defended the changes as necessary to deter bogus refugee claims. Saskatoon Conservative MP Kelly Block bragged about the reductions in a recent mail-out to constituents.

Akhtar, who faces an upcoming hearing on his refugee status, said he would already be dead if he’d remained in Pakistan.

The left side of Akhtar’s back is marked with loonie-sized wound where a bullet entered his back.

“They chased me yelling ‘You non-believer! You Christian dog!’ And then I was shot,” Akhtar said.

He had worked as the only Christian at an Islamabad junior high school, winning teacher-of-the-year awards three times for his instruction in social studies and the Urdu language.

One day, a new cleric in the mainly Muslim region came to his home and told him to convert to Islam.

“I denied him. He said I was a blasphemer and I would be charged,” Akhtar said.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws can result in lengthy jail terms and lifelong danger for those convicted. There have been more than 4,000 charges laid in recent years against non-Muslims, including the mentally challenged and minors.

The cleric harassed Akhtar and had supporters follow Akhtar wherever he went. His school principal was sympathetic and had Akhtar transferred to another area school, but the persecution continued.

One evening on his way home from school, the cleric grabbed Akhtar’s arm. He ran, and the cleric and two others chased and shot him in the back.

Akhtar was rushed to hospital. Doctors removed the bullet and dressed the wound, but told him he could not stay.

“They were afraid of a mob or a bombing if they kept me, so I was sent home,” he said.

The cleric, however, continued to threaten Akhtar. He and his family moved to another city, but were discovered.

He fled Pakistan and arrived via the United States in Saskatoon in June.

“I had heard Canada was a country of freedom. I was told Saskatoon processes refugee claims quickly so I came here.”

Akhtar was forced to flee alone, and hopes his five sons and wife will be allowed to join him. His prognosis is unclear.

Nadeem Imtiaz Bhatti arrived in Saskatoon from Pakistan several years ago. Bhatti said he knows about the persecution minority religious groups face in Pakistan.

Bhatti coached an interfaith youth soccer league, but threats and shootings by radical mobs caused him to abandon the league and flee to Canada. Bhatti’s uncle, a Pakistani cabinet minister and one of the only outspoken opponents of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated last year.

Bhatti gathered 3,500 names on a petition against the blasphemy laws, which was presented in the House of Commons by his MP, Kelly Block.

Bhatti is trying to help Akhtar with his health costs, and discussed plans for an upcoming fundraiser during a visit to RUH Sunday. No details have been finalized, but Bhatti can be reached at

“We as Canadians should be open to helping people escaping such persecution,” Bhatti said.

The StarPhoenix

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