MISSISSAUGA, ONT. — There was a time and a place when disguised, desperate fugitives surrendering to authorities rippled with drama. Tuesday near Pearson airport was not that time, nor that place.
When a fugitive couple from Italy who fled to Canada fearing a bloodthirsty Mafia clan — and went into hiding from Canadian immigration officers after their asylum claim was refused — came to surrender, hiding their faces with sunglasses and hats, it meant taking a number, standing in line and waiting, waiting and waiting to be called into an interview room.
The Demitris, both in their 40s and the parents of four children, came to Canada in a panic in 2013, fearing a Mafia vendetta against them both.
When Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers came to deport them last year, they avoided the sweep and have lived as fugitives ever since, wearing disguises, using fake names and pulling their children out of school.
A Federal Court decision last month, however, allows people from countries such as Italy to have a pre-removal risk assessment (PRAA) to determine how safe it is to deport them to their homeland, meaning they saw another way to remain in Canada without all the hiding.
That brought the couple to the CBSA enforcement office to surrender and apply for a PRAA without fear of being immediately detained and deported.
Before they walked in, however, there was still uncertainty.
“I don’t know if I’m shaking because I’m cold or shaking because I’m nervous,” she said outside the CBSA facility at 10 a.m.
“We gave instructions to our kids: if we don’t call you by 11:30, then you try to reach us. If you can’t reach us, call our lawyer. If you can’t reach him, call all of our friends and let them know.”
She was born into a notorious crime clan in southern Italy, but turned her back on their underworld life. (They spoke to the National Post on condition their first names not be published and the last name of her crime family not be used.)
When a relative, who had been a leader in the Mafia family, became a co-operating witness for the government, the gangsters sought to find him and kill him. Because she had been close to the turncoat, the Mafiosi assumed she knew where he was and pressured her and threatened her, she said.
Her husband, meanwhile, attracted unwanted Mafia attention on his own. He was a civilian who worked undercover for the police. He was investigating her relatives, members of a leading clan in the Sacra Corona Unita, one of Italy’s crime syndicates, he said.
That’s how they met and unexpectedly fell in love.
Once married, however, his cover was revealed, making him a target of the same mobsters who were threatening his wife, he said.
In 2012, the Demitris found a hole cut in the fence around their property. Their son found the family’s dog lying in the garden, foaming at the mouth. A veterinarian saved the pet but told them it had been poisoned, according to the couple. They believe it was a Mafia message.
Local police recommended they move.
They fled more than 1,000 kilometres away and took shelter in a monastery but when one of their children became ill and they registered their address to receive health care, a man paid a frightening visit to their home, they said.
“I come from the heart of Mesagne,” he told them. Mesagne is the Sacra Corona’s home soil and the Demitris have no doubt it was a threat to bring fear and compliance.
They packed everything up and flew to Toronto.
The Immigration and Refugee Board did not doubt their evidence or credibility but believed there was adequate protection in Italy and turned them down as refugees. They appealed to the court and to the Minister of Immigration, seeking humanitarian and compassionate intervention, to no avail.
Their surrender and new applications seemed their best bet.
After more than an hour waiting in line, an hour in a private interview with CBSA officials and being photographed and fingerprinted, the couple emerged, relived and joyful.
“If you want help and protection, you need to trust the system. We do trust the system and we will co-operate. This is the right thing to do, for our kids especially,” she said.
“It will give them a chance of a normal life again.”
Shortly before, she received a text message from one of their sons: “Mom, are you free?” When she said yes, he asked if it meant he could go back to school tomorrow. Yes, she told him.
Whether they will be allowed to remain in Canada permanently is still an unanswered question, but now they have a chance to try again legally, said their lawyer, Richard Boraks.
The couple said they want to apply for work permits, get jobs and pay taxes.
They are still worried about the mobsters, however. Recently an article about their case, with more details than they are comfortable with, appeared in a newspaper in Mesagne, the Sacra Corona stronghold. Conveniently placed underneath was a prominent advertisement for cheap funerals.
They do not think it is a coincidence. There are other things making them fearful, but they don’t wish to discuss them.
“Someone really, really seems to want us back in Italy — and not to greet us with flowers. We are concerned,” she said.
It is another reason they said they were eager to regularize their status — so they can phone police for help if they need it.
They then donned their scarves and hats and glasses and headed outside.
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