Three times the Demitri family frantically abandoned their home and fled. Twice was in Italy, fearing the Mafia. The third time, in May, was in Toronto, running from Canadian immigration officers.
They’ve lived in hiding ever since.
“It is weird when you are hiding from an officer instead of someone from the Mafia because you would expect to be hiding from the bad guys. Now, the bad guys are people who should be the good guys,” said the mother of four children who, along with her husband, sought refugee protection in Canada in 2013.
The Demitris, both in their 40s, came out of hiding — wearing disguises as they travelled — to tell their dramatic story.
She is a child of the Mafia. Although born into the high echelons of a notorious crime clan in southern Italy, she turned her back on their underworld traditions at a young age, she said.
The Demitri family spoke on condition their first names not be published and the last name of her crime family not be used.
It is the kind of subterfuge they are accustomed to.
He routinely switches false beards, moustaches and hairstyles, even fake tattoos. She swaps wigs, scarves, glasses. Both have a catalog of “fantasy names,” as she calls them.
“I have to write down which name I used and which wig I was wearing when I meet people,” she said. “This is what we have been doing day by day for almost six years.”
Her father’s brother was a boss of the Santa Corona Unita, a powerful Mafia group in southern Italy. Although less known than similar syndicates, such as Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the Santa Corona retains a strong grip on Puglia, the heel of the boot-shaped map of Italy.
Her father, mother, brothers, uncles, cousins, “all chose that life,” she said. “I have maintained a distance for a long time.”
She remembers, as a child, spending Sundays at the home of her uncle and him showing her his garish, blue tattoos inked in prison.
“One of the first things I learned was, when you hear someone shooting, just drop behind (parked) cars and run from car to car — and never look behind you. And if you see something, pretend you didn’t.”
She treated her cousin, the boss’s son, like a brother, although he, too, embraced the family business, in time replacing his father as the boss.
“He lived his whole life following the Mafia code. He was going in and out of jail always,” she said.
Meanwhile, the man she would later marry, had an unusual job of his own.
He was a civilian who worked with police in undercover operations, he said. Civilians are used by local police forces because they have never been in uniform and won’t be recognized as cops.
His mission was to get a job with a private security firm suspected of working with the Santa Corona. As part of the multi-year probe, he was investigating her family, he said.
“I needed a link to her family,” he said. Unknown to her, he gained access to their cars and houses through her. He also fell in love.
“It has been a very sensitive issue in our relationship because he knew who I was but I didn’t know who he was,” she said. In fact, they were married before she learned the truth, she said.
Did she feel betrayed?
“Yes,” she said curtly as he stared at the ground.
“I always knew you were a good person and this was enough for me,” he said to her.
In 2010, her mobster cousin was arrested for murder. Rather than a life in prison separated from his wife and children, he became a co-operating witness for the government.
There was a ferocious reaction from the mob.
The cousin’s own father — the uncle who had entertained her with his tattoos — publicly disowned him. A bomb exploded near his relatives. Mobsters scoured the province for him.
Because of her relationship with her cousin, people assumed she knew where he was. She was ostracized and harassed. She became frightened for her life, she said.
“They kill people for very stupid things. If they think you know something or want to harm you, they don’t double think it.”
They went to the police but were told there was nothing to investigate because there hadn’t been an attack yet, she said. There was also confusion over what was bringing this heat, her relationship with the turncoat mobster or his undercover work.
“When you start to see people follow you and spit on the ground behind you when you walk, you realize that you don’t need an attack or a threat to tell you they are after you,” she said. “When you have kids, you cannot wait for them to harm someone.”
Around the same time, his undercover work imploded, he said. His investigations led to arrests, and mobsters were looking for leaks. His police handler was transferred, leaving him isolated. Colleagues at the firm he infiltrated learned he was working with police. He was harassed and threatened.
He appealed to authorities for help but was ignored, he said.
In 2012, the Demitris found a hole cut in the fence around their property. Their son found the family’s dog lying in the garden foaming at the mouth. A veterinarian saved the pet but told them it had been poisoned, they said. They believe it was meant as a message, a threat of “what was to come to the rest of our family.”
Local police recommended they move away.
They fled more than 1,000 kilometres. They took shelter in a monastery near Turin, living among the nuns in a farming community. When one of their children became ill, however, they needed to register an address to receive health care.
In August 2013, they were selling the roof rack for their car. A man came to look at it. He showed only vague interest in the rack but then looked both of them in their eyes and switched to speaking in a southern Italian dialect, they said.
“I come from the heart of Mesagne,” the man said, according to the couple. It stopped them cold. Mesagne is the Santa Corona’s home soil. The Demitris have no doubt it was a threat, a Mafia message to bring fear and compliance.
“This was a message straight from the Santa Corona Unita telling us to beware and that they knew where to find us and could arrive at any moment,” she said.
They packed again and booked a flight to Toronto. They said they knew little about Canada: they knew of Niagara Falls and that it had a good reputation, but most important, that it was far from Italy.
They arrived on Sept. 18, 2013.
At Pearson airport they asked the customs agent for help, before even collecting their luggage, and made a claim for refugee protection.
Their request has not gone well.
In 2014, shortly before the birth of the first of two Canadian-born children, their refugee status was denied.
“I have no reason to doubt the claimants’ evidence,” the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) wrote in its decision. “The determinative issue in the matter is state protection.”
In cases like theirs, claimants must convince the IRB that authorities in their home country are unable or unwilling to protect them. For democratic countries, that is a harder argument to make.
“The mafia had in excess of six months to harm the claimants and they did not,” the decision says. “The documentary evidence establishes that the state protection is adequate.”
The couple pursued appeals: within the IRB, to the Federal Court of Canada, and a humanitarian and compassionate appeal based on their two Canadian-born children and the diagnosed post-traumatic stress suffered by their two children who came with them from Italy.
In the decision to reject their humanitarian appeal, issued March 29, 2018, an immigration official said adequate protection was available in Europe.
In May, the Demitris said, Canada Border Services Agency officers came for them, but they weren’t home.
“They showed up wearing bulletproof vests at our address with a big van, with our pictures, showing our pictures to our neighbours. They asked for us,” she said. “We got scared and packed everything again and went into hiding. Again. From that day, no more school, no more anything. We don’t go out as a family altogether any more.”
Richard Boraks, their immigration lawyer, said Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s immigration minister, is the family’s only hope. The minister has the power to grant a temporary resident permit (TRP) based on the circumstances of their case.
“The minister issues many TRPs every year to less compelling cases,” Boraks said. He said he thinks the minister doesn’t fully grasp the reach of the Mafia in Italy.
When both the minister’s office and ministry officials were asked about the case, the Post was told they could not speak of it without signed consent from the couple.
The signed forms were sent to both offices Wednesday morning.
“The family currently does not have status in Canada,” said Peter Liang, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in a statement Wednesday evening.
He confirmed the procedural history of the Demitris case and said their humanitarian appeal was denied because an adjudicator wasn’t satisfied their case “justified an exemption” and the Federal Court declined to hear their appeal.