IN THE NEWS ~ Visa approval gives Burnaby leukemia patient new hope

Visa approval gives Burnaby leukemia patient new hope
Man's sister cleared to travel to Canada for stem-cell transplant, after initially being told her application was rejected

Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun

Just when things couldn't look any bleaker for leukemia patient Azeem Ahmed Khan of Burnaby, he finally got some good news.

Khan's sister and potential stem-cell donor, Zahida Haroon, was notified Thursday by Canadian embassy officials in Pakistan that her long-awaited visitor's visa to Canada had finally been approved.

The visa means Haroon can now travel from her home in Karachi, Pakistan, to Vancouver where the lifesaving stem-cell transplant will take place.

"We are already checking flights for her," Naureen Azeem, Khan's wife, said in an interview from her husband's bedside at Vancouver General Hospital.

News of the visa approval came two days after a story of Khan's life-and-death struggle with cancer was published on The Vancouver Sun's front page.

The 47-year-old father of three was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in July and, with his health rapidly failing, doctors told him his only hope of survival was to undergo an immediate stem-cell transplant from a sibling.

Eager to help her brother, Haroon, 62, applied for the travel visa in early December through Canada's embassy in Islamabad.

Typically, visa applications like this -- which are supported by medical reports and a doctor's letter outlining the urgency of the situation -- are approved within two weeks. But more than a month later, Haroon had heard nothing, despite daily e-mails and phone calls to the embassy.

Khan's doctors at VGH, and New Democrat MP Peter Julian also sent letters to the embassy to press the case. They, too, got no response.

When contacted by The Sun, officials with Citizenship and Immigration Canada declined to comment directly on the case, citing privacy laws.

Speaking more generally, ministry spokeswoman Johanne Nadeau said specific guidelines exist to assist those people travelling to Canada to donate an organ.

"We do recognize the seriousness of such a situation and cases involving the transplant of an organ are given high priority," Nadeau said.
But applicants must also meet the requirements of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

"Specifically, the [visa] officer must be satisfied that the person will leave Canada at the end of his or her authorized stay," Nadeau said.

Julian, who represents the Khans' riding of Burnaby-New Westminster, said Haroon's visa approval should have been a "slam-dunk."
Haroon maintains strong connections to Pakistan as the matriarch of a large family of six children and several grandchildren. She is also the primary caregiver to her husband, who suffers from a heart condition.

Julian blamed a lack of federal funding and resources to visa offices for the application delays.

Naureen Azeem said her sister-in-law was told Thursday that her original visa application had been rejected. However, a review of the case resulted in that decision being overturned.

Haroon is expected to receive the visa early next week, and could be on a plane to Canada the following weekend. Her trip is expected to last two to three weeks. The stem-cell transplant increases Khan's chances of survival from a grim 10 per cent to 50 per cent -- enough to give his family hope for a brighter future.

"We were so depressed, we didn't know what was happening. Now at least we know that she [Haroon] is coming soon," said Azeem.

dahansen@vancouversun.com

ILLUS: Colour Photo: Ric Ernst, PNG / Azeem Ahmed Khan, 47, is closer to receiving a stem-cell transplant from his sister, Zahida Haroon, now that she has a visa to visit Canada from Pakistan.