A young man groomed since birth to lead Hamas has won the ability to stay in the US, following years of living under the threat of deportation to the West Bank from Canada.
John Calvin believes he'd be killed if he were sent back to Palestine because he's come out as gay, converted to Christianity, and renounced the militant organization that his grandfather co-founded.
Rejected by the Canadian immigration system, he crossed into the US eight months ago, and was immediately placed on an immigration hold until his release, in March. Last month, the 25-year-old learned he'd be able to stay in the US indefinitely, thanks to a deferral of removal granted to him by a Massachusetts immigration court under the Convention Against Torture.
"I've literally been to hell and back, so it's going to take a while for me to rebuild my life," Calvin told VICE News in his first public statements since learning of his release. He was hesitant at first about making the developments public, but the deadline for the US government to file an appeal has come and gone now.
"I'm in New York, and it's one of the greatest places on earth. I'm trying to focus… and gradually trying to make it home, but it's still not home," said Calvin, who refused to comply with a Canadian court's decision to send him from Edmonton, Alberta back to the West Bank in November and instead entered the US through Brunswick, Maine, where he was taken into custody by border officials.
"To use a biblical term, I was literally forced into exile from Edmonton."
The March ruling means he can live in the US, but has no permanent immigration status, and can be deported if an immigration judge finds, upon review, that it's unlikely he'd be tortured if he was sent back. Under the circumstances, Calvin will never be able to apply for a green card, but he'll be able to obtain a work permit.
"I wasn't planning to be in prison for eight months," Calvin said in an interview back in March. "Now I'm just going to try and resume my life normally. I've already contacted [New York University] to try and see if I can attend school next year, find an apartment, and probably get very long and expensive therapy."
Calvin had lived for five years in Canada, where it was found that there were reasonable grounds to believe he was an active member Hamas — a frustrating, inescapable truth for a man who says he came to the country at the age of 19 to escape the religious extremism that Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board concluded he had willingly participated in.
Calvin says the rift from his family and Hamas began when he was a teen. His grandfather, Said Bilal, was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a co-founder of Hamas, while five of his uncles were senior members. One uncle, serving as commander of Hamas' military wing in the West Bank, recently died, Calvin's mother told him shortly after his release.
Growing up, Calvin lived in a large complex with his family — and once in awhile, according to his testimony before Canadian officials, members of rival terrorist groups would stay in its secret hiding places. Israeli army officers, on the hunt for fugitives, often searched the complex, and it was also normal, at any given time, for at least one or two of his family members to be in jail, he testified.
In 2006, after getting into an argument with his family, Calvin says he tried to run away to Israel, where he was thrown into jail for crossing the border without documents. He would later testify that the jail stint, during which he was allegedly sexually abused by other prisoners, was a revelatory experience and served as a trigger for his withdrawal from Hamas. The compassion he was shown by Israeli guards after he reported the incidents contradicted everything he'd been taught to believe about Israeli people growing up.
And over the years that followed, Calvin says his worldview would only continue to shift further from that of his family.
At 16, a decision to convert to Christianity nearly cost him his life. When his father found out, he tried to stab Calvin in a fit of rage, forcing him to jump out of a window, and go into hiding.
And the alleged attempts on his life didn't end there — some time later, while hiding out at grandmother's house, Calvin received news that his father was planning to have him murdered and then present it as an honor killing.
With the help of his mother and a pastor, he made it into Jordan, and eventually into Canada on a student visa, filing a refugee claim some months later, only to be found inadmissible on security grounds.
Calvin made a home in Edmonton, with a close circle of friends who rallied behind him to raise money to fight his deportation. He argued that his religious conversion, renouncing Hamas, coming out as gay, and speaking with Israeli media meant a return to the West Bank would be fatal — all of this, he says, was taken into account by the judge who decided his case in Boston, but considered irrelevant by the IRB, which factored in only his past membership in Hamas.
"My family, close and extended, has the right to retaliate," he told VICE News in a sit down interview last week, adding, however, that it's unlikely they'd kill him right away. "I'm pretty sure there's a whole procedure of torture."
After being found inadmissible twice in Canada and having his application for judicial review dismissed, Calvin applied for a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) — a process with a very low success rate, used as a last resort by those facing removal orders who'd be in danger or at risk of persecution in their home countries. A lot of immigration lawyers and advocates say the process is inadequate and out of step with other countries, including the US.
'I couldn't risk waiting for them literally when my life was hanging by a thread.'
It's at this stage, after an applicant has already been ordered deported, that they would present the risk of torture argument. For Calvin, who waited for months to learn the outcome but decided to leave before he did, the PRRA amounted to a "big, sad nothing," he said.
"I couldn't risk waiting for them literally when my life was hanging by a thread."
Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees argues the PRRA — which is decided by immigration officers, usually without an oral hearing, rather than by the quasi-independent IRB, following a hearing with a right to counsel — is "very inadequate" and is "something we've been constantly concerned about."
From 2002 to 2006, out of a total of 30,590 PRRA applicants, only 816 were accepted — a 2.7 percent success rate.
"You have to define security and admissibility more narrowly because the impact is that people are denied access to the refugee definition, and they're forced to put up with this very inadequate process, which is the pre-removal risk assessment," said Dench.
Concerns have also been raised about how Canada determines whether someone is a member of a terrorist organization — while factors like age, and the extent to which one actually participates in illegal activity are important in Canadian criminal law, the standards in immigration law are much blurrier.
The question of whether or not Calvin had the "requisite knowledge or mental capacity to understand" his actions was raised by the Immigration Appeal Division member in Canada, who ultimately decided that the "intelligent, eloquent and well-informed" Calvin would've had an independent understanding of what he was doing at 16.
Calvin, for his part, contended that he'd been indoctrinated by his family and anything he did was strictly out of obedience and loyalty to them, and not because of any understanding of Hamas.
"Having been indoctrinated by family does not excuse membership in a terrorist organization," the member wrote in the decision, adding that Calvin remained a part of Hamas after learning about its nature, at least nominally, until he was 18. "Growing up as a 'Son of Hamas' does not relieve the respondent from responsibility for his actions."
Dench believes, and many have argued, that there are "huge problems" with the "loose" business of membership in a terrorist organization.
'Having been indoctrinated by family does not excuse membership in a terrorist organization.'
"They could say 'Even if you're not a member right now of Hamas, you were from your childhood, and we consider you a member because you were part of the whole family."
And that broad definition may be what led to the end of Calvin's stay in Edmonton.
As he waits to get an order of supervision to apply for a work permit in the United States, Calvin is acclimating to life in New York and figuring how to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. For now, though, he's focusing on therapy — Calvin says the stress of the last few years and being sexually assaulted repeatedly while in detention have resulted in him developing severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
But despite everything, Calvin's love for Canada hasn't waned. His Facebook wall is filled with tributes to his friends in Edmonton, and more recently, posts of solidarity with the fire-ravaged town of Fort McMurray.
"I think it is still very welcoming. If I am to be objective about the system, I was an odd case that had to get the hardship of all the policies that are in place," he said, but he believes those policies are still necessary for national security.
"If I was to hold a grudge, it wouldn't help anyone," he added. "The law is righteous, despite the fact that I got bitten by it unjustly."
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk