Canadian Muslims who embarked on the annual pilgrimage to the city of Mecca are now feeling the sting of a diplomatic dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia as they scramble to find a way home.
“We’re mostly concerned as a family because we don’t want her to be stranded,” said Jawad Chaudhry, a real estate broker from Hamilton, Ontario whose elderly mother joined over two million people who gathered from around the world to perform Hajj. The pilgrimage began on August 19 and is expected to end on the 24th.
His mother’s initial return was set for August 26 but that “simply won't be possible,” said Chaudhry, since her flight got cancelled. Chaudry’s family is trying to figure out a way to get her back for early September for a surprise party they have planned for her return.
Chaudhry’s family is not alone. This religious expedition has been decidedly different for thousands of Canadian Muslims who found themselves in the middle of a dramatic clash between the two countries. It began two weeks ago, when Canada publicly called out Saudi Arabia’s treatment of human rights activists, expressed concern over their arrests, and called for the immediate release of some.
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Saudi Arabia retaliated harshly to what it saw as inappropriate meddling. It scrapped scholarships and fellowships to Canada, pulled medical students working in hospitals, put a hold on all recent business with Ottawa and canceled travel operations to and from Canada. It also expelled the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and recalled its own envoy.
Canada has continued to make its disapproval known, just this week expressing concerns about the treatment of another human rights activist.
For Canadian Muslims with long-awaited travel plans, the feud meant suddenly their ride home was in jeopardy. The Saudi Arabian state airline, which is commonly used for the journey, announced it was suspending all travel to and from Toronto as of August 13.
Saudi Airlines (Saudia) via Toronto Pearson International office said that all flights in Canada using this airline will be cancelled effective immediately and travellers will be forced to take different routes instead. They say refunds are available if plans were made in advance.
Sumaiya Ahmed, says her friend Mutalib Alam is still in Saudi Arabia too. According to her, he switched from Saudi Airlines to Qatar Airlines for his return trip. Because of the halt in flights he decided it would be “safer to switch to another airline.” He is due to return early next week.
Ramisa Tasfia, said the change was unexpected and that her mother was at first “upset” Saudi Airlines wasn't an option. However both her parents have secured flights using Egyptair, flying home out of Cairo. Tasfia anticipates her parent’s return for Monday morning.
Aissatou Bah, a blogger based in Montreal, said her parents departed from Canada using Saudi Airlines on August 13, only to find out they can’t return in the same fashion. As of yet, a return date is still unclear. But Bah isnt worried, her parents will likely change their route home as many Canadian Muslims find themselves doing lately.
Global Affairs spokesperson Stefano Maron told VICE News that if any Canadians experience problems returning home from Saudi Arabia, the Canadian embassy there remains open to provide consular services for Canadians. He also pointed to "Hajj-specific" advice for Canadian Muslims on the department’s website.
“Global Affairs Canada is also aware of the decision of specific operations to suspend direct flights from Canada and we encourage affected Canadians to be in direct contact with their Hajj tour operator in order to organise their return travel,” Maron said.
However, The National Council of Canadian Muslims communication coordinator Leila Nasr said that they urge travellers “not to assume that their Hajj group organizers will take care of these alternate arrangements on their behalf."
Nasr said that any person scheduled to return to Canada on a Saudia flight in the coming weeks should call the airline directly or their respective travel agencies to find other options.
As a human rights and civil liberties organization, the NCCM also said it is domestically focused and encourages the government, through Global Affairs Canada’s consular offices, to “continue to fulfill their duties to assist Canadian travellers who may be experiencing difficulties in returning to Canada”
They say everyone who is experiencing difficulties returning to Canada should consider reaching out to their MP for help.
Travelling to Hajj at least once in a lifetime is considered important to many Muslims, especially if you have the financial means and health to complete the five-day pilgrimage journey. Millions of Muslims plan years in advance to be able to afford it and the entire journey can cost up to $15,000 per person.
Mehek Mazhar, said her and her husband faced the unexpected setback only days before their scheduled departure to Saudi Arabia on Aug.11
“We both work, and we can’t wait maybe a week to just see how long we wait to get back to Canada,” she told Global News.
Mazhar is currently in Saudi Arabia and tells VICE News she’s been given word for her flight home and is waiting for her booking to be confirmed. She expects to be back on Aug 27th. The couple had to book a replacement trip home through Lufthansa Airlines.
Cover Image: Muslim Hajj pilgrims visit Hiraa cave at Jabal al-Nour "The Mountain of Light" during Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (EPA/MOHAMMED SABER.)