Trudeau welcoming Syrians
It’s been a year since three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi died when his family tried to reach Greece by boat; and, since that time, local Canadian refugee advocates have worked tirelessly to assist both Syrian newcomers and their sponsors. But their work has also taken on an international dimension.
Louisa Taylor, director of 'Refugee 613', a non-partisan group that works with citizens, sponsorship groups, settlement agencies and lawyers in Ottawa has been contacted by officials in Norway, Ireland and the United States who are trying to determine what aspects of Canada’s refugee policy might be replicable in their jurisdictions.
Taylor recalled telling representatives from foreign embassies and the European Union how the recently arrived Syrian refugees are integrating into their new communities with assistance from members of their private sponsorship groups.
She explained that, thousands of Canadians who had never thought about refugees a year ago, are today intimately involved in resettling and helping refugees make lives here. They are looking for apartments to rent, helping with CVs, looking for language classes and navigating the job market, she said.
“This is a beautiful byproduct of this experience. All these people are looking at their own community and society with different eyes.”
When Taylor explains that Refugee 613 has amassed a mailing list of people who want to receive updates (as there are more people who want to sponsor than there are refugees available to sponsor), “their eyes go really big,” she said.
“The motivation is a real challenge for people of some countries to understand because they are fed a narrative of the migrant as the problem, the migrant as the other, the migrant as a threat,” she said. “They wonder, ‘Why would you go out of your way to sign a contract with the government to say you will be responsible for someone you’ve never met?’”
Taylor explains: “The fact is, as long as there is conflict or persecution in the world we want to be a country that will give people sanctuary.”
She added, “We’re not unique. We know there are other communities [around the world] that could be doing this in a heartbeat.”
Canadian officials processing Vietnamese refugees in 1979
To date, several countries around the world have launched or are poised to start refugee programs inspired by what exists in Canada. Germany has private sponsorship programs in many states. The United Kingdom is introducing a refugee sponsorship scheme called Refugees Welcome, based on the Canadian model. Australia’s pilot program, meanwhile, began three years ago and became permanent in 2015. And next year Argentina and New Zealand are also launching pilots similar to Canada’s.
In June, New Zealand Red Cross secretary general Tony Paine told Radio New Zealand that it would be a positive step for the country to adopt a sponsorship program similar to Canada’s.
“It’s a good additional tool to have in the toolkit, as Kiwis think about how they can help with a crisis that is happening around the other side of the globe,” he said. “It’s just another thing that we can do as Kiwis to help people who are facing terrible and desperate times."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly commended Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis and praised citizens for extending “caring, warm hands” to people who had nowhere else to go.
It is the most vulnerable who are coming; roughly 50 per cent are children, many are women and there are large groups of families.
Canada is exceptional in some ways. One of the ways is geography. As we are surrounded by three oceans and the U.S., we don’t have to deal on a day-to-day basis with millions of people trying to cross our borders. We have the luxury of being able to select people we deem admissible to come to Canada.
In February, Naomi Alboim, a professor and chair of the Policy Forum at Queen’s University was in Italy outlining Canada’s refugee policy to politicians and NGO workers. Alboim recalled how keen her audience was to see “ordinary Italians” interacting with refugees just as ordinary Canadians have been doing.
The majority of questions dealt with integrating refugees into Italian society: “They said, ‘How do we ensure they (refugees) do not become the ‘other’? How do we ensure refugees are better integrated and have interest in civic participation?’”
She outlined Canada’s labour market integration programs to them and the importance of society working with refugees. She described the ways refugees have to integrate through language classes, access to higher education, employment and recreational initiatives that provide hands-on access to varied and experiential learning.
She has been invited to speak on similar topics in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and, in October, Alboim will present lectures at universities in the Baltic States.
“We cannot put them [refugees] in economic ghettos; we cannot marginalize them politically. That is what happened in a lot of European countries such as France and Belgium. They [refugees and migrants] believe they aren’t being represented by the state and they don’t have meaningful interaction with the state. And this can cause distrust and flash ethnic violence. We’ve seen this globally.”
Canada has been fortunate to not suffer as many terrorism attacks as other countries and, therefore, the government’s focus remains on integration and not on ramping up security or military presence.
“The philosophy of inclusion is unique to Canada and it can be replicated. It requires a moral investment from government, dedication and emotional investment from citizens and it takes money."
Language instruction. Communication is the first and biggest hurdle
Omar Al Ziab, 15, was walking home from school in 2011 when a military vehicle ran him over, crushing his right leg and leaving his other leg badly injured.
In November of last year, he received a prosthetic leg just weeks after arriving in Canada. Now just nine months later, he's making new strides – on the ice.
"They told me, 'You can play, just try,' and I tried. When I played [sledge hockey] the first time it was so awesome and it's fun," said Al Ziab.
"My friends tell me, 'Oh you are now a Canadian,'" said Al Ziab.
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