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Kickboxing champ facing uncertain future as he fights to stay in Canada

They’re an unlikely pair, the two of them.

One a 26-year-old Egyptian fighter, the other a little boy. They spar with each other, practise using a balance ball, and work out, all while Ethan Shaw gives Hady Ghoneim a rundown on his life.

“I feel so good, I feel like a new person,” nine-year-old Ethan says, as he blocks his much larger opponent’s hits.

“A new person? I’m so happy to hear that, that’s amazing,” Ghoneim replies.

Ethan considers Ghoneim his best friend, and vice versa.

It’s an unlikely friendship born out of Ethan’s desire to gain confidence and protect himself from bullies.

But his training and newfound friendship are now in jeopardy as Ghoneim makes one last-ditch effort to stay in Canada. 

One of the first things Ghoneim did after walking off the plane in St. John’s on May 5, 2017, was visit Signal Hill. (Submitted by Hady Ghoneim)

Ghoneim arrived in St. John’s on a sunny and warm May day in 2017, and was immediately struck by the rugged beauty of the place and the people that inhabit it.

“Honestly, even since the first day I have been so blessed, I have met a lot of beautiful people,” Ghoneim said.

He attended Memorial University for a year and a half, but after he and his family in Egypt fell on tough financial times, Ghoneim said, he abandoned his studies.

He later returned to school, but it was too late. 

Pleading compassionate grounds

By leaving school for any amount of time — not including scheduled school breaks — he violated a rule of his study permit that says you need to remain in university.

This February, the federal government refused his application for an extension to his study permit.

“I’m just basically living in limbo now, just waiting,” Ghoneim said. “I got multiple job offers that I had to turn down because I am not legally allowed to work.”

He has since hired Meghan Felt, a partner in McInnes Cooper who specializes in immigration law. 

“There are relatively limited options for him,” Felt said in a recent interview. 

Lawyer Meghan Felt, a partner at McInnes Cooper, specializes in immigration law. (Paul Pickett/CBC)

Felt, who has handled cases similar to Ghoneim’s, said the Canadian immigration process is “not a forgiving one.”

They have chosen to proceed with what is called an H and C, or humanitarian and compassionate, application.

“You have to make sure you fall in line. And if you don’t, you fall out of line, then it makes you ineligible. So you have to be very careful,” she said.

The process will take about 2½ years to complete, she said, and the immigration system overall is known to be rife with application delays, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine added stress on the system. 

According to numbers provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the refusal rate of humanitarian and compassionate applications has eased since 2020, when over 60 per cent of people who applied were denied.

In 2021, 42 per cent of applicants were denied. So far this year, the rate has dropped to 23 per cent.

“It applies only to people with exceptional cases, who have exhausted all other options,” wrote a spokesperson in an email.

“It is a last resort and provides an opportunity to consider compelling humanitarian circumstances on a case by case basis. A central part of this process is ensuring that each and every case is evaluated on its merits, and receives due process, including the right to appeal.”

Felt said she will make the case that Ghoneim has been of significant benefit to the community, and would be an asset to the province, and country, in the future.

She hopes the federal government will recognize Ghoneim’s outstanding athletic accomplishments and what he could do for the country. 

A champ

Ghoneim has represented Newfoundland and Labrador at four national competitions for kickboxing and muay thai, garnering five medals. In 2019, he was invited to join the Canadian World Kickboxing Association team. 

“I’ve always — ever since I came here — always been grateful and try to give back and show my gratitude,” he said.

“I remember my first competition, my first nationals. I took my Egyptian flag and I also backpacked my Newfoundland flag with me, and when I won, on the podium I stood up with both flags because basically this is what I represent now.”

Ghoneim is staying in the country on a visitor’s visa while his application is being considered.

His life is in limbo as he navigates what he can do within the legal parameters of living in the country. That means he can’t work, or even compete; he no longer qualifies for the provincial Medical Care Plan and could be faced with a steep bill if he gets hurt. 

Ghoneim, 26, has garnered a number of medals in kickboxing and muay thai during his time in Newfoundland and Labrador, and has represented the province at national competitions. (Submitted by Hady Ghoneim)

Ghoneim said he has trained and mentored hundreds of people during his time in Newfoundland and Labrador, but he misses competing for the province. 

“I just want to be able to do that again — be able to go with my team and, you know, hopefully one day go to the Olympics or something. Why not?” Ghoneim said.

“I really believe in myself. I’m really talented and one of the best fighters, so I think I will be able to do that. But I just need some help.”

Ghoneim acknowledges he made a mistake but is pleading for leniency.

“We leave our childhood friends and family and everybody behind for a chance of better opportunity and a better life. And it’s very hard, you know — some people’s rights here are dreams back home.”

A worried mom

Last year, Suzanne Hearn met Ghoniem through a mutual friend and asked if he could mentor her son, Ethan, who had struggled socially and academically. 

Hearn, who wrote a letter to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in support of Ghoneim, said her son was never able to bond with anyone in extracurricular activities, until he met Ghoneim.

“He’s happier, he’s more confident and loves what he does and he is excited. We’re here three days a week in the gym with Hady and it’s like he’s become a whole new person with his confidence, even his walk,” Hearn said. 

This kickboxer considers himself a Newfoundlander. But he may soon have to leave home

Hady Ghoneim is hoping the federal government will approve his permanent residency application, after he was denied an extension for his study permit.

She worries what will happen if Ethan loses one of the only male role models he has, and stressed the important role Ghoneim plays in the community.

Later this month, Ethan will turn 10. Ghoneim will be there.

“He’s a really great guy, he makes me happy,” Ethan said, as the two friends broke from training.

Ghoneim replied, “You make me happy too, buddy I’m grateful to have met you.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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