A woman who escaped violence and human trafficking, and helped shelter former CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden when he fled to Hong Kong, has arrived in Canada with her daughter after being granted refugee status.
Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter Keana arrived in Toronto on Monday before travelling to Montreal, where they will settle in an apartment provided to them by a non-profit group that filed her 2016 asylum application.
Rodel said as soon as the plane lifted off, she felt as though she could relax and begin to think of her new life in Canada.
"I feel so great and I feel like I'm free," she said after arriving at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
Her lawyer, Robert Tibbo, said Rodel's arrival in Canada is the "first victory" in a saga that began in 2013. Rodel was part of a group that became known as Snowden's "Guardian Angels." They helped the fugitive at Tibbo's request in 2013, when the whistleblower fled the United States to Hong Kong after leaking classified information about the U.S. National Security Administration.
Five other people in the "Angels" group represented by Tibbo — three adults and two children — remain in Hong Kong. They fled Sri Lanka years ago, and their applications for asylum in Hong Kong have been rejected.
Rodel said she her thoughts are with those who remain in Hong Kong who also helped Snowden.
"I'm happy, but I'm also sad because they are still left behind," she said. "They are still stuck for many years in Hong Kong. They have so many troubles in their lives. ... I'm hoping they also can come to Canada and (have) a better life."
Tibbo urged the federal government to intercede and bring the remaining refugees to Canada.
"We are, though, very concerned that the other families have been left behind and we would like to see Mr. Trudeau and his government take necessary steps to decide the cases now," he said.
Snowden's leaks revealed to the world the global reach of the vast surveillance network of the U.S. and its allies. Snowden, who is still represented by Tibbo, is now in Moscow and is wanted in the United States on charges related to the leaks. The seven "Angels" gained notoriety in 2016 when their existence was revealed in Oliver Stone's film "Snowden," and Tibbo said they have since faced political persecution in Hong Kong.
Tibbo, originally from Montreal, and three Montreal-based lawyers set up a group to raise money for his clients who helped shelter the political fugitive. They filed asylum applications on their behalf, and collected about $350,000 for their expenses in Hong Kong and in Canada, should they all arrive in the city as privately sponsored refugees.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked about the case Monday in Washington, where she was meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
"For the private refugees, it's a quasi-judicial process — it's not a political process," Freeland said. "And we can't comment on personal cases."
Tibbo said Rodel and her daughter's asylum applications were clear cut.
"There really wasn't a debate there," he said. "And for the other families, all I can say is that their cases aren't decided yet."
Tibbo said Rodel fled gender-based persecution and human trafficking in the Philippines before she fled to Hong Kong. She and her daughter were accepted by Canada as refugees in January 2019. Her legal team kept their status secret until Monday.
"We wanted to make sure the wheels of the plane lifted off the ground," Tibbo said.
The other asylum seekers are a couple from Sri Lanka named Supun Kellapatha and Nadeeka Paththini, and their two young children. The fifth is Ajit Kumara, a Sri Lankan soldier who deserted the military.
Aside from the individual reasons they fled Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Tibbo said all of the so-called angels "have a separate refugee claim based on political opinion, stemming from their association and their assistance to Mr. Snowden in 2013."
Snowden tweeted about Rodel and her daughter on Monday.
"Thank you to all those in Canada and around the world who have made this possible," he wrote in French. "After so many years, the first of the families who helped me is free and has a future. But the work is not over — with solidarity and compassion, Canada can save them all."
Tibbo said Snowden was charged with three counts of theft of data under the U.S. Espionage Act.
— with files from Shawn Jeffords