Sunday, January 31, 2016 10:00 am ·  0 Comments
The first Syrian refugee family sponsored by a group in Oakville arrived on the 21st of December. For the interfaith group that sponsored them, it was a wonderful Hanukah-Christmas gift. This is a very Canadian undertaking that is happening all over the country. We should be proud, because it really does make a difference.
By helping refugees we keep the flames of hope alive.
When we help the victims of this particularly vicious war that is destroying Syria, we still cling to a belief of a better future.
When we help refugees lay plans for a better life, we make a better world. We know this, because Canada has done it over and over again in crisis after crisis. As a people we have the experience and the expertise to resettle large groups of refugees.
Our national character has been forged largely by refugees — from the United Empire Loyalists, who fled the American Revolution, to slaves who came to Canada via the underground railroad or the “displaced persons” who arrived from Europe following the Second World War. Canadians have repeatedly provided humanitarian assistance to people who have fled persecution in their homeland or been displaced by conflict.
Mennonites, Sudeten Germans, Doukhobors, Jews from Europe, Hungarian and Czech victims of the Cold War, Tibetans, Vietnamese boat people, Central Americans, Ugandan Asians, Chileans, Somalis, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans and Kosovars have all sought and found shelter here.
I got involved in the Syrian refugee crisis as a newspaper reporter. Just before I retired, I worked on a special project for the Atkinson Foundation and the Toronto Star, doing a study of Canadian refugee policy and the Syrian crisis.
One of the things that stuck with me most during that work was the fact that I rediscovered the Indochinese refugee crisis of 1979. As I went about my interviews, I rediscovered the incredibly fascinating story of how Canada successfully resettled 60,000 destitute and desperate people from Southeast Asia in just 18 months. I was amazed by the stunning acts of generosity performed by tens of thousands of individual Canadians, families, neighbourhood groups, cities and churches – just like yours – who rallied to rescue 60,000 total strangers.
In a matter of just two months, Canadians convinced the government to take in ten times the number of Indochinese refugees it had originally planned to help. They ended up sponsoring more than 50,000 refugees in just a few months.
Tiny church congregations of 100 people lined up to sponsor as many as six families; employers promised jobs, small grocery stores volunteered free fruit and vegetables for families and stores contributed clothing and furniture. In 1979, Canadians surprised the world and themselves by opening their doors and their hearts to refugees. And we did it, almost without thinking, just because it seemed the right thing to do.
Now, we are doing it again.
In the last six months Canadians have had an incredible change of heart. They have become focused on the tragedy of Syria and the plight of 12.5 million people who have been driven from their homes — 4.5 million of whom have fled their country and been living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan for almost five years.
Years of indifference have suddenly given way to a surge of compassion.
Lifeline Syria, of which I am a board member and the volunteer communications director, was established last June with the modest aim to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees in the Greater Toronto Area over two years. Four months later, we had 1,500 people in nearly 400 groups who are preparing to sponsor about 1,600 refugees.
And we’re still having people coming forward to ask how they can help.
As Lifeline Syria’s media spokesman, I’ve had the pleasure to tell Canadian and foreign reporters
about former Vietnamese refugees who are now sponsoring Syrian refugees;
about schoolchildren and classes who have created community sponsorship groups to settle families in their neighbourhood;
about law offices that have set up competitions between their partners to either sponsor refugees or raise funds to support other sponsors.
There is no shortage of great stories.
But one that I have always been proud to talk of is the partnership of Maple Grove United Church, the ISNA mosque and the Shaarei-Beth El Synagogue.
Abraham’s Children Together (as they call their sponsorship) is a wonderful example of everything that is great about our country. And believe me, their example has inspired others. Their faith and their values are indeed reflected in their actions.
Syria’s present pain has given Canadians an opportunity to reassert themselves as a people, to decide what we want to represent as a nation and to act on that belief in ways that can make the world a better place.
Since last September, when the world was shocked by the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s death on a beach in Turkey, the top Google search in Canada for months was “How to Sponsor a Syrian.” That is something to be proud of, even if we did waste years ignoring Syria’s turmoil while we entertained ourselves with things like the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Right now, Canadians are launched on a great humanitarian venture and, hopefully, it will knit this country together with a renewed sense of commitment to the values we cherish.
But, like any worthwhile venture this one will have risks. It is going to force Canadians to confront their fears — their fears for their own safety, their fear of strangers and their fear of the future. Already strains of Islamophobia and xenophobia have appeared like cracks in the facade of our Canadian unity. Already people mutter about the cost of altruism and the need to take care of our own poor first.
I’m afraid the naysayers will always be with us. If you want to get really depressed, just simply scroll through some of the public comments that appear beneath Internet news stories on the Syrian refugee crisis.
But I don’t think these people represent my Canada.
By taking care of Syrian refugees we can do far more than dodge a disaster. It can make us stronger. It can reinvigorate our places of worship, challenge our young people and renew our faiths.
We are going to have to undertake this rescue mission in a world that is still filled with fear, uncertainty and ignorance. Where our lives are distracted and self-centred; where refugee resettlement is frequently portrayed as an optional work of charity instead of a moral obligation or a vital national interest.
But my Canada and yours believes that by helping refugees we can keep the flames of hope alive.