After his daughter’s death, Olugu Ukpai devotes his live to fixing the immigration system for other families
By Kayla Hounsell
The family’s pride is evident as they sit, legs crossed, wearing the brightly coloured, matching, traditional outfits. Tiny fingers keep perfect time as the sound of an African drum reverberates throughout the home. Mom, dad, and their five children are playing, but someone is missing.
The Ukpai family had an arduous journey to Halifax that began more than a decade ago.
Olugu Ukpai came to Canada from Nigeria on a scholarship to attend Dalhousie University in 2005. While working on his international development master’s degree, he applied for three visas to bring his family to Canada, but was denied every time. While they waited, tragedy struck.
“One morning I was in class and I got a phone call from my wife, Esther, that we’ve lost one of our twin girls,” he says.
Her name was Goodness, and she is the reason they are drumming up support. Goodness Ukpai died of malaria when she was 16 months old.
“I was devastated,” he says. “I was broken,” but now, as he pounds the drums, a wide smile spreads across his face.
“I cried as much as I could,” says Ukpai, reflecting back on that day 10 years ago. “But after some time I decided to pick up my pieces, and channel my grieving into doing something positive.”
He founded CHAMA (Challenging Aids and Malaria in Africa). Every year he returns to Nigeria on medical missions to bring medications to children who have malaria, a potentially deadly but preventable disease transmitted by mosquitoes.
As he explains the illness, Ukpai leans in earnestly, “Do you know that every 30 seconds a child under five dies of Malaria unnecessarily?” He speaks slowly, coming to full stops, allowing his words to sink in. “Even. As I’m talking to you. Right. Now.”
He says his organization has saved 60,000 people in 12 African countries over the past decade. In addition to delivering medications, Halifax-based CHAMA, drills wells, provides bed nets, and is currently building a school.
“I feel fulfilled,” says Ukpai. “I feel empowered. I feel consoled. For me, it’s like a therapy.”
He says his entire family is now waging war on Malaria. “It makes me happy,” says his wife, Esther Ukpai of their charity. “It puts joy in my heart.”
Just as it is important to them to teach their children (three of whom were born in Canada) how to play the drums, they also educate them about malaria. Goodness’ twin sister, Mercy, is now 11-years-old. She organized a run in Halifax on World Malaria Day, April 25. “Run for Goodness. Run for malaria,” says the timid child, raising awareness for the sister she doesn’t even remember.
“It presents to us a golden opportunity to save the lives of other children because we couldn’t save the life of our own daughter,” says Ukpai.
In addition to his master’s degree from Dal, Ukpai is now defending a PhD in International Criminal Law, but he wants to switch focus entirely. “My passion has changed after we lost our daughter to malaria,” he says. “Because my daughter died waiting to come to Canada.”
He is now pursuing a career in immigration services with the Canadian government, and applied to the University of British Columbia to study immigration law.
“In the long wait families are broken, disintegrated, and family members are lost,” Ukpai says.
Lee Cohen, a local immigration lawyer, agrees. He says there are many problems with the immigration system, and the processing time is a big one. “They are punishingly long, and they are disrespectfully long, and they are cruel,” he says.
From his office overlooking Spring Garden Road, he says most of the people on the busy street below would think it’s easy to come to Canada, but the lawyer of 30 years, says they would be wrong.
“If you’re applying from Nigeria, the chances of you getting a visitor visa are very, very low,” Cohen says. “If you’re applying from many countries in Africa, not all but most, the chances of getting a visitor visa are very, very low.”
Immigration and Citizenship denied two visitor visas from the Ukpai family. “The reason they gave was that if my family visited me, they would not go back to my country,” Ukpai says.
“It’s very common and it’s very disturbing,” says Cohen. He says rejection letters for visitor visas are all the same. “Birth, death, marriage, emergency, you won’t get here,” he says. “And you’ll be rejected once, twice, three times.”
After the two visitor visas were rejected, the Ukpais applied to come to Canada as permanent residents. That attempt was denied on the quality of the application. The fourth attempt was successful but by then, baby Goodness was dead.
Today Ukpai is a business consultant for an international exporting company, and the memory of that pain is what drives him to become an immigration consultant.
“I have been badly hurt,” he says. “I don’t appreciate it, and this is what I don’t wish to happen to other immigrants, because the issue of bureaucracy in Canadian immigration is something that has not only affected me, but there are so many families out there that have been separated, and some families broken.”
It’s understandable that people are disappointed when their visitor applications are refused, says Remi Lariviere, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. “Our responsibility, however, is to make sure that all visitors meet the requirements to come to Canada, as set out in Canada’s immigration law,” he says via email from Ottawa.
Ukpai wants the Canadian government to fast-track permanent residency applications for spouses already here, the way it has for Syrian refugees.
“I have thought about all of this almost every hour of every day of my life,” Cohen says, “because I confront it all the time.”
Ukpai also thinks about it every day of his life; he is committed to making a difference whether through his charity or his plans to affect Canadian immigration.
“There is the need for us to stand up and do more to help these children because there is no need for any child to die of Malaria unnecessarily because it is a needless disease,” he says. “It is a poverty disease.”
His eldest daughter chimes in. “Let’s stop Malaria before another Goodness dies.” Ukpai says it is as though the family is still fighting to save the lost twin. “We are not giving up on her because there are other Goodnesses out there that need help.”
This story originally ran in the September 2016 issue of Halifax Magazine. Reprinted with permission.