I am sorry to break with tradition and write something a little more serious than my usual light-hearted stories, but something has been really bothering me of late and I feel I have to get it off my chest. The world is in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in a generation and yet there is little acknowledgement and even less political will to do anything about it. According to the UN, there are currently 4,000,000 Syrian refugees. Count the zeros. That is four million, almost twice the population of Vancouver are on the move and trying desperately to get into countries like Germany, France and England, but nobody seems to want them. Hungary is building a fence to keep them out and German neo-Nazis are attacking refugee camps. They are being treated like cattle, dying in cargo ships or in the back of refrigeration trucks. Where’s the outcry?
As an ESL instructor I have the great privilege of being able to meet people from around the world. Many of these countries are in the midst of civil wars and our image of their people is largely shaped by what we see on the news, how they’re portrayed in movies or what our politicians tell us. I can happily report that perceptions about people change dramatically when you actually meet them. I have had students from places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq and they have all been very nice and appreciate their lives in Canada. Unfortunately, I have never had anyone from Syria in any of my classes but I hope I do some day, because this is what I know about Syrians.
About ten years ago, and long before my ESL career, I was up late looking for a new vacation spot. I was researching the Lonely Planet webpage and I thought, just for fun, I should search countries where I would not want to go, countries where nobody would want to go. First on my list: Syria. Who would want to go to Syria? I thought. I typed it in the search window and the first line of the introduction said something like this: “Syrians have a well-deserved reputation of being the world’s friendliest people.” My jaw dropped. Really? The world’s friendliest people; where did that leave Canadians? As I read on I came to the realization that I really wanted to go to Syria, if not for the incredible ancient ruins, then just to meet these mythical “friendliest people in the world.”
A year later, a friend of mine was going to Jordan for a vacation and I convinced her to spend some time Syria, based on what I read about the place. She agreed and spent about a week in Syria, then reported back to me on her return. She said it was hard to judge if Syrians were the friendliest, but that she would easily put them in her top 5, and her travel resume was far more extensive than mine. She said Syria was definitely worth visiting, that Syrians truly valued showing off their country, its history and they were incredibly generous. Syrians were known to invite tourists into their homes for dinner and to meet their families. I couldn’t imagine anyone in Canada doing this, so maybe there was something to this reputation. Now it’s these same friendly people who need our help, so what is Canada doing? Canada has always had an open door policy to immigrants and refugees, and between 1891 and 1914, it’s estimated that over 200,000 Ukrainians came to Canada, my ancestors among them, but it seems that times have changed.
Back in 2013, Canada pledged to take in 1300 Syrian refugees or .03%. Wow, I thought, this is pathetic, but it gets worse. That 1300 number wasn’t reached until 2015, so we’re talking about 650 refugees per year out of 4,000,000. Remember, it’s six zeros. In January the Government committed to take in another 10,000 by the end of 2017 so a slightly more respectable .25% of refugees, but this is where things get really bizarre. Our Government has told the International community that Canada is only willing to take in religious “minorities” from Syria, which means the 87% of Syrians who are Muslim are not invited. Just this morning I heard a Syrian representative on the radio say that bombs don’t discriminate, so why should Canada. Who can argue with this, but it shows once again how far Canada’s government has fallen from its once lofty perch as peacekeeper and global conscience. This is also not the Canada that I remember. My Canada does not discriminate.
Fortunately wherever I’ve traveled, people still view Canadians as nice, friendly people. I worry that this is in jeopardy because of the decisions made in Ottawa. We are in the middle of an election, so I’m asking anyone who reads this column to make Syrian refugees a priority. Tell your candidates that Canada needs Syrian refugees, because there are a few people in Ottawa who have forgotten the true meaning of “friendly.”