The Qualified Welcoming of Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees

Published in The Huffington Post on February 10th, 2016

The responses of individuals and countries to the Syrian Refugee Crisis has been a bit of an informal test on the level of humanity within individuals and nations.  A mirror has been set up to reflect the political tensions within countries and the identities of its citizens.  For Canada we have had a leadership change and a different take on Syrian Refugees as Harper stalled the process for supposed “security concerns” while Trudeau was seen handing out coats to immigrant families at Pearson airport.  Trudeau’s actions were comforting to me as along with other Canadians I had experienced 10 years of Harper’s tight lipped media evasion. I got a little teary eyed when Trudeau welcomed the Syrian families with the words, “Welcome to your new home.” I was inspired that Canadian leadership was promoting empathy and understanding for the trauma that these people had suffered.

Even though outwardly Canada seems to have embraced the incoming refugees, I think some people have forgotten the compassion and despair that was felt when the image of Alex Kurdi’s lifeless body,  was seared into our collective unconscious.  I have been in a discussion behind closed doors where people spoke of the refugees as being “different” and unable to adapt to Canadian Society. I heard people intertwine the identities of ISIS and Muslims and in the same breath indicate that the criminalization of some countries is due to Newcomers. Donald Trump screams Racist Immigration policies from a pulpit in America while many share these views quietly behind closed doors in Canada.  The whispers of intolerance still need to be addressed in Canada.

I asked Mulegeta Abai, Executive Director of the Centre for Victims of Torture, and a past refugee himself what can be done to confront this backroom racism. He says, “Education. We must trace our roots and acknowledge our own connection to immigration. Everyone has been an immigrant or a refugee at one time.” Perhaps he means that in this nation we have connections to many immigrants and refugees in our families or perhaps we may have been a Newcomer at one point.

When I was in that backroom discussion of refugees I tried to point out that the other speakers were themselves immigrants in the 50s and 60s.  I also tried to relate the urgency of the situation by comparing it to other times in history like the 250, 000 refugees that sought protection from the Nazis in the Second World War. The analogies fell flat as they discussed San Bernadino and their fear of incoming ISIS members.

Abai feels that we have to counter these fear mongering ideas with representations of refugees and immigrants that are positive as this population is often blamed for spikes in crime. The incident of sexual assaults in Cologne by migrants and German citizens didn’t necessarily help the image of migrants. There is no excuse for sexual assault and Germans and migrants must be aware of the severity of this situation. But is the solution to add to the fear mongering rhetoric of the Far Right or to improve settlement and public safety programs.  Shouldn’t there be anti-assault and gender equality campaigns instituted in the wake of this incident to let everyone know what is criminal and not tolerated in Germany.

Also in Denmark, the beacon of socially democratic policies and purported happy people have decided to institute the policy where incoming Syrian refugees may have possessions over 10, 000 Kroners($614.87) seized. It is true that economies can only financially support a limited number of refugees. This policy will definitely take Denmark through a political firestorm as they try to legislate what and how much can be taken, and what is considered too sentimental to seize. I wonder how many refugee organizations they consulted to test out the sensitivity and affect this policy will have on incoming refugees.

So the world is reacting and the world is watching to see how compassion is manipulated, and welcoming words are being qualified.  Migration causes tension based on different factors like the history of the country, their immigration policy, racism, inclusion and integration policies and others. The choice between exclusion and fear mongering and inclusion and education is being decided. Each individual and country will have to decide which side of history they will come down on. What will they want to be remembered for?




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