Canada’s Syrian refugee plan viewed as a milestone by some
OTTAWA – Almost exactly three years ago, Faisal Alazem appeared before a House of Commons committee and urged Canada to do more to help the millions of Syrians caught up in that country’s brutal civil war.
It was October 2012 and the conflict in Syria was just over a year old.
The death toll at that point was estimated to be in the tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced as the regime of Bashar Assad battled with opposition forces for control.
Stories of mass killings, torture, widespread arrests and detention emerged nearly daily.
Canada must act, Alazem, a spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council, told MPs.
“For the first time in the last 50 years, the interests of the Syrian people and those of the free world coincide. Please don’t let this opportunity pass, for the sake of our values as Canadians, for the sake of the children of Syria, and for the sake of humanity,” he said.
Among the things he was asking for: more help for Syrians seeking a safe haven outside their homeland.
It took nine months before the Canadian government responded. In July 2013, they opened up a 1,300 spaces for refugees and pledged more assistance for family reunification.
In the year that followed, Alazem and the UN asked Canada to do more.
But it would take until January 2015 for the Conservatives to offer more spots and until March for the 2013 commitment to even be met.
In the meantime, Syrian refugees were overwhelming the resources of neighbouring states and beginning to pour into Europe; some four million people are now displaced and while new homes are not being sought for all, the UN has been pleading with countries for months to take hundreds of thousands who need immediate assistance.
On Tuesday, the Liberal government is expected to announce its plan for how it will resettle 25,000 people in the coming months, making it a leader among nations for the number it will formally resettle.
Alazem views it as a milestone.
“It is something historical to be proud of,” he said in an interview.
“Especially given the Islamphobic environment that not only Canada, the entire planet is going through.”
Kilmeny Heron has found herself unexpectedly dealing with some of those sentiments in her hometown of Eganville, Ont.
Shortly before she was to speak this past Sunday at a multi-faith service supporting refugee resettlement, she received an irate phone call from someone in her community berating her for getting involved.
“We know it is out there,” she said of the some of the backlash against the resettlement plan.
“But I think the positive is a lot stronger,” she said.
Heron is part of a group calling themselves Valley Welcome and who have raised $45,000 in the last two months to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.
The process began in the aftermath of the photograph that circulated around the globe – three-year-old Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach after his family fled Syria. Canada had been one of the places they were going to eventually try and reach.
Heron called a good friend, and they decided to help. Emails circulated among other friends, and the local United Church heard and offered assistance – the church is one of many groups which have formal contracts with the government to resettle refugees.
The original group who launched the project weren’t churchgoers, Heron said.
“But it just started to feel that it should be a broader community effort,” she said.
The United Church helped the group find a family, the Anglicans offered support, and Sunday’s service was at the local Catholic church.
The local Islamic association has also become involved – a group many in the area didn’t even know existed, Heron said.
All have also connected with the military base in Petawawa, Ont., offering support there in the event they are a reception centre for refugees. The military’s involvement in the plan is expected to be made clear Tuesday.
What Heron will be looking for is whether her group’s efforts will be part of it as well; it’s unclear how many of the 25,000 will be privately-sponsored.
Nine people from one family are now in the process of eventually moving to Canada from Beirut and settling in the Ottawa Valley because of Heron and her friend’s initial conversation.
People have offered free housing, furniture and clothing. The mosque designated three families to act as translators.
Canadians are all learning something about themselves in the process of the Syrian refugee response, Heron said.
“Living rurally, you assume that everybody is very insular and right wing,” she said.
“And it’s not the case. It’s been really overwhelmingly wonderful.”