People pray at an open air makeshift mosque in front of a giant Saudi Flag in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Amr Nabil

Saudi man helps medical students in Canada seek asylum amid diplomatic tensions

A Nova Scotia health official says the pending departure of 59 Saudi Arabian medical residents will result in surgical delays over the coming months.

A Saudi Arabian man who successfully claimed asylum in Canada is now helping students across the country do the same amid tensions between the two countries that erupted last month.

Omar Abdulaziz says he is assisting 20 Saudi medical students from Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia seek asylum so they can continue their studies and live in Canada.

Last month Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic relations with Canada in response to a government tweet that criticized the Saudis for the arrest of female social activists.

Saudi students were initially told that they had to leave Canada by Aug. 31 because of the ongoing diplomatic spat.

But HealthCareCan, which represents Canadian hospitals, said hundreds of Saudi Arabian resident physicians will be able to stay in the country to continue their training for now.

Abdulaziz says the students he is working with are not among those allowed to stay in Canada longer.

“Some of them are really scared,” said Abdulaziz. “This is a shock for them.”

Abdulaziz, who was officially granted asylum in 2014, said since diplomatic tensions rose, he’s been helping students from other universities with the asylum claim process.

He said the students don’t want to return to the kingdom because they are worried that they’ll be questioned by Saudi authorities on why they didn’t come back by the Aug 31. deadline.

Abdulaziz said some of the students also fear going back to the kingdom because they are uncertain if they’ll ever be allowed to return to Canada. He said other students are worried that they could be detained because of their associations with people who have recently been jailed in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been through the same situation before,” said the 27-year old. “I understand how it feels to fear going back to your country, to feel lost.”

Related: Saudi Arabia expelling Canadian ambassador, freezing new trade with country

Related: PM says cabinet retreat focused on issues close to home for Canadians

Abdulaziz said he claimed asylum in Canada in 2013 because of his political activism and criticisms of the Saudi government that he would regularly post on social media. He said he began posting about human rights issues publicly when he started his studies in Quebec in 2009 at McGill University.

He said his family started receiving threats because of his activism. He said he then claimed asylum because he feared that if he returned to Saudi Arabia he would be jailed.

“I felt that if I returned I was going to be harmed, or that I would at least lose my freedom,” he said.

Abdulaziz said he’s now helping students get in touch with lawyers and fill out paperwork so they can stay in Canada. Abdulaziz said some of the students are his friends and others reached out to him when they heard about his asylum claim being granted.

“I don’t want them to experience the same (feelings) as me and I hope that they pass this,” said Abdulaziz, who is how studying political science and sociology at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que.

Abdulaziz said the 20 students have been studying in Canada for three to four years.

Alanna Rizza, The Canadian Press

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