Members of the Haredi Orthodox sect Lev Tahor are apparently moving to Guatemala in rising numbers, Canadian media reported over the weekend.
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A family member living in Israel told the Montreal Gazette that he travelled last month to Guatemala to visit his sister, who recently moved there from Ontario in violation of a Canadian court order. The man, identified only as K. because of a court order, told the Gazette that he saw his sister and six of her children – the two elder daughters are in foster care – living in a small, squalid shack in the village of San Juan de Laguna, east of Guatemala City. In addition to another adult family member who also fled Canada, the shack was crammed with 30 other sect members, K. said.
Last March, a Guatemalan court ruled that the family would be allowed to remain in Guatemala, but under certain conditions, such as checking in with the Canadian embassy.
While K. was not allowed to enter the shack, he found out from members of the local Jewish community that the children sleep on the dirt floor and lack a regular supply of food and water, as well as basic facilities like plumbing. K. wrote on his Facebook page that he recoiled to see the state of his nephew, who was dirty and covered with bug bites. "I hugged him and couldn't let go," he wrote.
Speaking to the Gazette, K. said that he was gravely concerned about the mental health of his sister, initially refused to see him and asked him to "spare her the unneeded anxiety" and leave. K. described her as detached, disoriented and "lacking the will to live."
"It seemed like she had no emotions," he said.
The Gazette also quoted two former sect members who said they believe their relatives and their families moved to Guatemala as well.
Guidy Mamann, a lawyer for Lev Tahor told the Gazette that the members “have an opportunity to find somewhere where they can go,” and that Guatemala is one of them. “In fairness to the parents, I think it’s important for the public to know that these are not bad people,” he said. “They made some bad decisions clearly about leaving Quebec and Ontario. But that doesn’t mean they were abusive or neglectful of their children.”
Fourteen children and several Lev Tahor adults fled Canada in early March ahead of an appeal of an Ontario court order mandating that the children be placed in protective custody.
Eight of the children traveled to Trinidad and Tobago, where they were taken into custody and returned to Canada. Two more children were apprehended in Calgary and also removed from the sect.
Child protection officials in Ontario and Quebec say they have evidence of abuse in the community, including physical beatings, underage marriage and substandard education. The community has denied all allegations and claims it is a victim of religious persecution.