Canadians are being urged to respond to Syria’s humanitarian crisis by accepting at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next two years. In one event calling attention to the issue, a group called The Coalition in Ottawa for Refugees recently held a noon-hour rally at the human rights monument adjacent to city hall. Organizers handed out buttons supporting refugee sponsorship and tags saying “I’ve sponsored, ask me.”
The group heard from Aurelia Achor, who came to Canada as a refugee from South Sudan in 1990. She has sponsored 29 refugees on her own since then and she says they are not just Sudanese but have come from many countries. “I have eight children of my own,” she said, “so if I can sponsor refugees, then all of you can do it. Go home and think about it when you are eating your next meal. You can’t sponsor all refugees but you help who you can.”
Rev. Feras Chamas is a Syrian who arrived in Canada eight months ago. He is now serving as a Presbyterian minister in Morrisburg, a town in Eastern Ontario. Rev. Chamas said there are now nearly three million Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.
“These people have done nothing wrong to deserve this. People in the camps are waiting for our help. We can try to distance ourselves but the minute we get close to them and hear their story it appeals to us on moral and ethical grounds. We cannot wash our hands of this.”
Don Smith is chair of the Refugee Working Group of the Anglican Archdiocese of Ottawa. He described how he and his family decided to sponsor refugees from Indo-China in 1979-80. “It was a life changing experience for us,” he said. “It put a personal face on a suffering people but in the years to come it also blessed us with friendships, as we are invited as honoured guests to celebrate births, graduations and weddings. We continue to share joys and sorrows, laughter and tears with these same people who we helped many years ago.”
Smith said that the federal government must “get serious” about settling more refugees from Syria. “They have to speed up the process. It now takes 22 months to process a refugee so the government has to cut back on the bureaucracy. And the government has to work in partnership with sponsoring groups in Canada. Those groups have an immense experience. The government should sit down with us and set up a strategy. We have done this before and we can do it again. Canada will be the better off for it.”
Paul Dewar, the NDP MP for Ottawa Centre, spoke of how people in Ottawa sponsored 4,000 Indo-Chinese refugees in 1979-80. “It was a magical thing,” Dewar said. “People in Ottawa decided to sponsor and support other people who needed help. We now call the people who arrived then our neighbours and friends. There is no reason that we can’t do that again.”
Dewar, who is also his party’s critic for Foreign Affairs, said he met in May with António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Guterres has asked countries such as Canada to help with the resettlement of 130,000 of the 2.8 million Syrian refugees. Some of those countries have made commitments but few carried through with them. Dewar said Guterres has asked Canada to sponsor 5,000 Syrians this year and 5,000 next.
“We can do this because we have done it before,” Dewar said. “People are crying out for our help. If we are aware of their needs, and we are, then it is irresponsible and inhumane to turn our backs on them. We have to do our part. Our government must respond to the call from the UNHCR.”
The Canadian government promised in 2013 to accept 1300 Syrians but as of April of this year it had to admit that fewer than 10 of those refugees have arrived. The government, in turn, has accused opposition parties and refugee advocates of politicizing the issue.
Dewar said, “I plead with Minister Chris Alexander, let’s work together. Do the right thing and we will support you. Commit to taking 5,000 Syrian refugees this year and another 5,000 next year, as the United Nations has asked, and we will support you.”
* * *
To place the Syrian refugee crisis in context, the following numbers may be useful. Syria had a pre-war population of about 23 million. About 9.3 million of those people have now been displaced by the brutal civil war, a number equal to the combined populations of the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Manitoba. About 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced within the country. Another 2.8 million have been registered as refugees, in neighbouring countries: 1.1 million in Lebanon (a country whose population was only 4.5 million before the influx of Syrians); 783,000 in Turkey; 597,000 in Jordan; 221,000 in Iraq; and 136,000 in Egypt. An estimated 100,000 have made it to Europe and a smaller number to the United States. These are only people who have registered as refugees. The real numbers of displaced people is probably much higher. All of this has placed an enormous burden on Syria’s neighbours, all relatively poor countries. While Canada is the 11th richest country in the world measured by GNP, Lebanon rates 68th and Jordan 120th. Canada’s income, measured as GNP per capita in 2013, was $43,472; Lebanon’s was $14,845 and Jordan’s $6,115.