Abdikarim Gelle has been detained for months awaiting deportation but Somalia won’t accept mentally ill people

By Andrea Huncar

Abdikarim Gelle is stuck in an Edmonton jail cell — indefinitely.


Canadian authorities want to deport him, but they’ve run into a major hurdle: Somalia won’t take him back.

“Why I gotta sit in hell down in jail?” 31-year old Gelle asked government officials and his lawyer at a detention review this week. “No life here.”

Gelle, who fled war-torn Somalia with his family as a child, has spent half his life and nearly his entire Canadian existence in and out of jail.

Since coming to Canada as a refugee in 1999, he has racked up 57 convictions as an adult, including sexual assault, assault of a peace officer, assault with a weapon and trafficking cocaine.

But for eight months over the past year, Gelle has been held without charge at the Edmonton Remand Center by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Government officials insist Gelle is too dangerous to release and unlikely to show up for deportation — should that ever happen.

They’ve cleared every last barrier for his removal but one: the Somali government refuses to accept people with mental health problems, and Gelle has many.

Gelle is the man that no country wants.

'If Somalia rejected him what is the plan?' asks Asili Gelle, who has had her son's bag packed for two years. (Andrea Huncar)
‘If Somalia rejected him what is the plan?’ asks Asili Gelle, who has had her son’s bag packed for two years. (Andrea Huncar)

“My son is not alive and he’s not dead,” sobbed mother Asili Gelle, her words translated by a family advocate at her north Edmonton home. “I can’t have closure.”

Asili Gelle wrestled a black suitcase from the closet, stuffed with socks, underwear, a blanket and carefully folded shirts. Federal authorities told her to be ready for her son’s deportation. Two years later, she’s still waiting.

She has legal guardianship of her son. But her poor English and inability to navigate the Canadian justice and health systems over the past 17 years have left her feeling lost. Unsure of who to turn to, she directs her plea to the very top.

“My son, who is mentally sick, is in jail,” said Asili, fists clenched. “I want the prime minister and premier to know I’m a mother who is suffering, who does not speak the language, and her son is rotting in jail. Everyone knows he’s sick and no one is doing anything about it.

“If Somalia rejected him, what is the plan?”

‘I’m a mad man’

Transcripts from detention reviews dating back to November 2015 show those working on Abdikarim’s case have tried unsuccessfully to find an alternative to remand with suitable mental health supports.

But Alberta Hospital, which deals with psychiatric inmates, won’t take him. According to transcripts, authorities say it’s because they don’t think he can make an easy transition into the community, and is not sticking to his treatment plan.

“I’m not following no treatment plan,” declared Abdikarim at Monday’s detention review. “I’m not crazy. I’m a mad man. I’m an officer.”

Abdikarim has also claimed to be American rapper Jay Z, a relative of U.S. President Barack Obama and the son of the Queen of England. He insists his birth country is Kenya, not Somalia. He complains he’s constantly shackled.

On Monday, he once again asked for proof of his mental illness.

The adjudicator read out part of a diagnosis by a forensic psychiatrist. Abdikarim suffers from schizoaffective disorder, intellectual delays and substance abuse.

His diagnosis also includes possible brain damage and a severe psychotic condition that leaves him “chronically bereft of insight and judgement,” documents show.

“I don’t have no problems I’m telling you,” Abdikarim insisted. “You just read that to me.”

Family advocate Habiba Abdulle says if they send Abdikarim to Somalia he will die. (Sam Martin/CBC)
Family advocate Habiba Abdulle says if they send Abdikarim to Somalia he will die. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Advocates working with the family describe Canada’s plan to send a mentally ill man back to Somalia as inhumane.

They don’t dispute he needs to be in custody. But they say holding Abdikarim indefinitely without the right medical support violates his rights.

“He’s sick,” said Habiba Abdulle, a family advocate with the Alberta Somali Community Centre. “He has not been looked at as a sick person.

“It’s time for him to get treatment and find a facility that would accommodate his mental illness needs.”

Somalia’s horrors

Asili Gelle’s drawn face lights up briefly when she remembers a time before the deportation orders, before her son’s descent into crime and mental illness, before civil war, when she never considered life would be anything but normal.

She and her husband led a comfortable life, running a transport company in Mogadishu and raising their three young children. Abdikarim was happy and laughed a lot in those days, she said.

Then war erupted. Her husband was shot dead. Asili and the children fled but the war chased after them.

In one village, soldiers rounded up 70 men and boys, her son among them. Asili Gelle recalls hiding in the bush with her little girls, trying to avoid rape. She can still remember the smell of the blood and gunpowder from the spray of machine gunfire that made the ground tremble and her chest vibrate.

A day later, after the soldiers moved on, the women began collecting bodies.

Underneath the pile of corpses they discovered seven-year-old Abdikarim. He was alive, uninjured, but painted red with blood. Only later did Asili learn of the horrors her son had witnessed that day — the amputation of limbs and removal of eyeballs — before the bodies began falling on top of him.

Abdikarim didn’t speak on their 17-day walk to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, passing corpses devoured by hyenas.

In 1999, Asili arrived in Winnipeg with new hope for her family. But 13-year-old Abdikarim’s nightmares and panic attacks got worse. He began hallucinating and heard voices in his head.

‘Unfinished dream’

Just a year into their new Canadian life, Abdikarim was hospitalized for the first time, his mom said. A little later came his first arrest for riding with other kids in a stolen car. He would return to juvenile detention many times.

Asili Gelle described the day she and her children were set to become Canadians as an “unfinished dream.” Abdikarim ended up in the psychiatric ward. The delusions were so bad he missed his own citizenship ceremony.

Meanwhile, the convictions and warnings from government authorities piled up.

In 2010, the Immigration and Refugee Board issued two deportation orders for criminality and alleged membership in the Mafia Street Gang in Winnipeg.

The orders also stripped him of his permanent residency.

In 2014, the federal government issued a “danger opinion.” The assessment concluded the danger Abdikarim posed to the Canadian public outweighed the risk of sending him back to Somalia, despite his refugee status.

Resistance from Somali authorities doesn’t appear to be deterring Canadian government officials from pursuing deportation.

“There has been very good development in the Somalian removal process in recent months,” said a federal government representative at the tribunal. “And although there is no sign at this point that Somalia will accept medical cases anytime soon, there is still the possibility that this will change. Of course this is the [public safety] minister’s hope.”

Over the past year, authorities have explored several deportation options.

One scenario involved putting Abdikarim on a commercial flight to Kenya with four officers and a medical nurse, where intravenous drips would be required. Another plan envisioned flying him and his mother to the autonomous region of Somaliland.

“It is my professional opinion that to deport/remove Mr. Gelle back to his home country of Somalia would be inhumane, as this individual requires extensive psychiatric follow up to ensure his stability and ability to remain in the community,” wrote Alberta Health Services forensic psychiatrist Dr. Vijay Singh in January 2013.

The availability of required mental health services is questionable, the psychiatrist also noted.

“He will die,” said Abdulle, who opposes sending Abdikarim to a country known for stigmatizing mentally ill people and chaining them up. “He will not be able to survive in a country that is already struggling.”

The border services agency said it cannot comment at this time. Abdikarim’s next detention review takes place in 30 days.

About The Author

Andrea Huncar, Reporter
Andrea Huncar, Reporter

Andrea Huncar is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. She has also reported from Saskatchewan, Toronto and East Africa. Email: Twitter: @andreahuncar

Source: CBC News

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