Published On Fri Apr 22 2011
Josette Rosenzweig Issasi, 14, is at the centre of a fierce international custody battle.VICTOR CHAVEZ/FOR THE TORONTO STAR
SOMEWHERE IN MEXICO—In the brightly lit and noisy confines of a restaurant in a Sanborns store — a chain of shops-cum-eateries that is all but ubiquitous in Mexico — sits a pretty, animated teen.
She is wearing a T-shirt, blue jeans, canvas sneakers and a playful teddy bear hat.
It is Josette Rosenzweig Issasi, the 14-year-old at the centre of a bureaucratic and legalistic imbroglio involving allegations of child abuse and a fierce international custody battle.
“Here I am,” she says, “keeping myself hidden.”
On Monday, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that a lower court erred last September when it ordered Josette be sent back to Mexico and to the custody of her mother.
The appeals court said a risk assessment should have been undertaken before any ruling was made on Josette's deportation, and no such assessment took place.
The girl had previously been granted refugee status in Canada, citing longstanding abuse by her mother, but she was sent back to Mexico anyway.
Josette’s world is now a feud-ridden twilight zone controlled by strangers and lawyers, judges and bureaucrats, most of whom are Canadian. Just four months past her 14th birthday, Josette is at once a refugee from Mexico, a deportee from Canada, a runaway from home, and now an involuntary high-school dropout — the fugitive victim of the colliding interests of adults in Canada, Mexico and as far away as Norway.
She agreed to meet a Star reporter on the proviso the location not be revealed.
“I’m very nervous,” she says, sipping a glass of water in the bustling restaurant.
“Here, they are persecuting me. If the police find me, they’ll take me back to my mother, and she’ll start beating me again. I don’t want things to reach that point.”
In a 90-minute conversation, Josette told the Star about her tumultuous life both before and since she was hustled on to an Air Canada jet at Pearson International Airport last Oct. 15 and banished back to an existence she thought she’d escaped.
Josette was accompanied during the meeting by a gracious woman who is not a relative but with whom she is currently living. The woman, who does not wish to be identified, said little during the interview but simply listened as Josette recounted a Byzantine tale of legal wrangling — the soulless machinations of justice, and injustice, that have come to dominate her young life.
The latest twist is the Court of Appeal’s ruling that she should return to Canada for a new hearing about her fate — only she can’t.
In the first place, the Ontario court has no jurisdiction in Mexico. Secondly, Josette has no access to her passport. She says the document was taken by Canadian immigration authorities early in 2009, when she launched a refugee claim in Toronto.
The claim was approved in May 2010, but the passport was never returned, not even when she was bundled out of Canada and back to the scene of her worst nightmares — her home in Cancun, dominated by a mother who, she says, abuses her psychologically and routinely beats her.
It was mainly to escape that abuse, at least temporarily, that the girl traveled to Canada in December 2008 along with her maternal grandmother, Emma Rodriguez Blancarte, who plays a somewhat counter-intuitive role in this chronicle.
The two planned to spend 15 days visiting Josette’s father, Kenneth Rosenzweig Espinal, a Mexican graphic designer who was seeking political asylum in Canada at the time, as well as his sister, who has lived in Toronto for the past eight years or so.
By this time, Kenneth Rosenzweig had already divorced Josette’s mother, whose name is Marlen Rodriguez Issasi. Both have since remarried.
“I didn’t plan to stay,” says Josette, who was then turning 13. “But they saw I was very nervous. I was very tense.”
Her poor psychological state led to several long and heartfelt conversations among the various family members. “We decided we were going to make a refugee claim,” she says.
Her mother launched an appeal, arguing that the refugee board ruling violated an article of The Hague Convention, an international treaty. Simply put, she charged that her former husband’s family had kidnapped her daughter, something Josette categorically denies.
But, last September, Justice George Czutrin of the Superior Court of Ontario ruled in the mother’s favour, authorizing police to seize the girl.
Unaware of this decision, Josette continued to attend classes at Toronto’s Central Technical School. On Oct. 14, she finished a session of swimming instruction, dressed, dried her hair and headed for chemistry class.
“I just opened my folder to take notes,” she recalls.
The principal appeared at the classroom door along with a man in a dark blue business suit, who turned out to be a police detective.
And that was Josette’s last full day in Canada.
She remembers almost every detail of the ensuing hours, which were deeply traumatic — her tearful farewells to her friends, the surprise appearance of her mother, the drive north to the airport strip, in company with her mother, her mother’s lawyer, and the police detective.
The small party had dinner at a McDonald’s near the airport, and Josette spent the night sharing a room at an airport hotel with her mother and two other women, both lawyers, she says.
The four slept two to a bed, arising around 5 a.m. so that Josette and her mother could catch a morning flight to Cancun.
“My mother wanted to hug me, but I wouldn’t let her,” she says. “I didn’t want to talk to her.”
Back in Mexico, life reverted more or less to its previous unhappy rhythm, except that the beatings ceased.
In prior times, such punishments had been inflicted on average once every two weeks, says Josette. Her mother would hit her “with anything that came to hand.” At no time, however, did she require medical treatment.
“My mother hit me sometimes for a reason and other times without a reason, but I didn’t think it was right to hit me at all.”
Philip Epstein, the Toronto-based lawyer who represented Josette’s mother at the recent Ontario Court of Appeal hearing, did not return a call from the Star this week asking about the allegations.
Three months after her return to Mexico, Josette says her mother hit her again, with a dish towel.
On April 4, or roughly three weeks ago, the pair got into another bitter argument, and Josette made her decision.
She packed a knapsack, waited for an opportunity and left the house at about 6 p.m. She ran 10 blocks to a park before flagging down a taxi.
She had little money, however, and no clear plan.
Minutes later, she got lucky.
The taxi happened to pass her maternal grandmother, who was walking along the street. “It was pure coincidence,” says Josette.
The two traveled in the taxi to the city of Mérida, roughly a three-hour drive away, where Josette found temporary lodging with the aunt of a schoolmate.
From there, she made her way alone to her current location, where she keeps in contact by email with her Canadian friends and with her paternal aunt in Toronto, who would willingly care for her there.
Josette’s father lost his bid for refugee status in Canada and is now in Norway, making a refugee claim in that country. But he has remained involved in his daughter’s affairs. It was he who appealed last September’s superior court decision that sent Josette back to Mexico.
Josette says she learned about the reversal of that ruling from her aunt in Toronto on Monday.
“It made me very happy,” she says. “Now the problem is, how am I going to get back to Canada?”
The answer is largely out of her hands.
As a minor, she can’t get a new passport without her mother’s approval, which is hardly likely. In any case, she would also have to obtain a Canadian visa.
Josette says she could visit a Canadian diplomatic post in Mexico to seek advice, but she fears the Canadians would report her to police.
And so she spends her days in hiding, while she waits and hopes — just a 14-year-old girl, fearful, on the lam and in limbo.
Somewhere in Mexico.