An openly gay and atheist University of Winnipeg student who feared for his life if he was sent back to his home country, Malaysia, will be allowed to stay in Canada, as his claim for refugee status has been accepted.
Hazim Ismail's partner, friends and supporters hugged him after an Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada panel in Winnipeg announced its decision following a 20-minute hearing on Tuesday morning.
RAW: Hazim Ismail granted refugee status1:18
"It was overwhelming and I feel really, really, really loved and appreciated," Ismail said as he thanked everyone who has supported him.
Ismail said he was still trying to process the decision, which came after months of preparations and anxiety about possibly having to return to Malaysia, where homosexuality is punishable by law and 60 per cent of the population is Muslim.
"Hazim walked in as a refugee claimant and he is walking out as a protected person … which means he cannot be deported back to Malaysia," said Bashir Khan, his lawyer.
"This is one of those cases where the evidence is strong, my client is very credible and he has got tremendous public support, and all of that came together and he won his claim without too much struggle at the hearing room today."
Khan said Ismail will receive a written version of the decision in the next three to six weeks. With that document in hand, he can apply for permanent resident status in Canada — a process that Khan estimates can take 10 to 13 months.
Disowned by family
Ismail said his family, who are Muslim, disowned him and stopped paying for his education last year after learning he is gay and an atheist. His story became public after a GoFundMe campaign was launched in December to help pay his tuition for the rest of his semester.
He said he once thought of returning to Malaysia and trying to live undercover there, but his case has since attracted media attention in his home country, along with homophobic comments and even threats from some members of the public there.
Hazim Ismail speaks to reporters after his refugee status hearing in downtown Winnipeg on Tuesday morning. (CBC)
"If you had asked me like back in December, I would've been like, 'Ah, well, maybe I can go back.' But now, like, this was me backed into a corner," he said before the hearing.
"I'm trying to fight for survival because Malaysia's not welcoming of homosexuals."
Ismail added that last week, he received an email from someone claiming to be doing research on apostates — people who no longer subscribe to a certain religious group — in Malaysia.
That person "wanted me to reveal the names of apostates who have come out to me in private," he said.
"It's one thing to come out to a family that's not receiving it very well, but to be outed to thousands of strangers, it's not something that I don't feel anybody could be prepared for, so it has been really stressful."
Ismail, centre, is surrounded by supporters after the hearing. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)