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‘It’s heartbreaking—this baby is not a threat to our country’: Retiree honoured for reuniting refugees

Dec 9, 2016

Ruth Beardsley (right), who officially retired as Options Community Services' senior manager last Thursday, is seen in Nairobi, Kenya in 2012 with refugees Nasteha (left) and her aunt who cared for her since she was two months old.

By: David P. Ball Metro Published on Mon Dec 05 2016

A veteran Surrey community services leader was celebrated with a United Way fund named in her honour last Wednesday, the day before she retired.

But it’s the story behind Ruth Beardsley’s efforts to reunite torn-apart refugee families — a quest that took the Richmond resident 14,000 kilometres beyond her job description — that captured the attention of the United Way of the Lower Mainland.

“The story is unbelievable,” explained Michael McKnight, the charity’s president and CEO, in a phone interview. “We’ve known Ruth for a long time as part of our funding and work on refugee resettlement and early years work, but we only really heard about her story after the fact.

“It’s one of those stories of someone who’s gone above and beyond what almost anyone would do.”

The “unbelievable” story began eight years ago when Beardsley — who retired on Thursday as senior manager of Options Community Services after 14 years at the Surrey organization — was dropping in on one of the support programs she helped create for newcomer mothers and kids.

The mothers attending the First Steps Early Child Development Settlement Program that day in 2008 were sharing their stories of giving birth when one of them, a single mother from Ethiopia named Zeynab, began to weep.

“That’s when she told us that she had to leave her baby daughter behind,” Beardsley told Metro in a phone interview, describing how Zeynab had spent five years in a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya with her five children before Canada accepted her to settle in B.C.

Two months before her flight to Canada, however, she gave birth to a baby girl.  

“Mom was told, ‘Don’t even try to bring this baby with you or you’ll never get out of here,’” Beardsley recounted. “Even though the baby was born in a United Nations facility, she wasn’t on the list.

“She had to decide whether to bring her other five children to safety after five years in a refugee camp — or to stay behind and possibly never get them out. For anyone to be put in that position is unbelievable.”

Beardsley knew she and her staff had to do something to help reunite mother and daughter, but she never expected it to take three-and-a-half years to bring Nasteha to B.C.

“I remember feeling how awful this would be for any parent to have to make that decision, and then have to live with it and feel so bad,” she recalled. “She worried about her baby all the time.”

After massive amounts of “very confusing” paperwork required, the efforts paid off. But Zaynab had her other five children to care for and was not well. She agreed to let Beardsley fly to Kenya in her place.

“It wasn’t something I set out knowing that’s where it would end, but it evolved into that,” she said. “I was now the most familiar person with their story, so I offered to do it.”

Today, Nasteha is reunited with her five siblings and mother, and despite retiring from Options Community Services, Beardsley has kept in regular touch with the family. She said Nasteha is doing very well in school.

But the ordeal taught her not only how complicated the refugee reunification process can be in Canada, but also how many more families are torn apart by the settlement process.

“There are so many caring people in our community, but thank goodness there are people like Ruth!” McKnight mused. “While learning more about Ruth’s story, we learned there are a lot of families who had to leave a child behind.

“The United Way thought we should create more opportunities for reunification in families to occur.”

This summer, Beardsley’s work with refugees and children in their early years was recognized with the United Way’s Community Impact Award.

On Wednesday, the United Way and the Bhayana Family Foundation launched a fund — the United Way Ruth Beardsley Reunification Fund — to help more families in the Lower Mainland like Zaynab’s reunite with left-behind loved ones.

“I think I’ll always have a connection with this family,” Beardsley said. “This is not an unusual story, unfortunately.

“It’s heartbreaking — this baby is not a threat to our county. There’s no reason to separate a newborn child from her parent.”