From campaign promise to shared Thanksgiving feasts, Trudeau’s Syrian refugee plan takes shape

Amber Nasrulla
Daily Brew

[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the first group of Canada’s refugees at the welcome centre Dec. 11, 2015. Photo: The Canadian Press]

Glance at the highlight reel of Justin Trudeau’s first year as Prime Minister and much differentiates him from his predecessor: Trudeau’s “sunny ways,” social media selfies with Canadians, and, perhaps the most memorable, the Syrian refugee resettlement program.

To date 32,437 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada, a mix of government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees.

The initiative was set in motion because of a tragedy. After toddler Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015, Trudeau pledged to resettle 25,000 Syrians by Jan. 1 if the Liberals were elected.

“It was unprecedented,” says Chris Friesen, Chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance, an organization that represents immigrant-serving agencies across Canada. “To suddenly have leadership like this, [with] quite profound, humanitarian vision and goals, it really caught those of us who work day-in and day-out on the ground, off-guard.”

Those goals contrasted with a decade under the Harper government.

“10 years were filled with negative discourse around refugees and increasing involvement of the PMO’s office with respect to the selection of refugees,” Friesen says.

Suddenly, assisting refugees became a key federal election issue, overshadowing traditional topics such as jobs, the economy, and healthcare. That Kurdi’s aunt lives in B.C. only added momentum to the issue. And when the Liberals won the election they announced the 25,000 target had to be met by the end of 2015.

Friesen, who has advocated for refugees and immigrant for 30 years, recalls how he and his colleagues, “went from adrenaline to, ‘this is great’ to ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to get through it given the short amount of time?’”

Then, on Nov. 15, 2015, Islamic State suicide bombers and gunman attacked a concert hall, stadium, restaurants, and bars in Paris, killing 130 and wounding hundreds more. The shock and horror was felt around the world. In the aftermath, questions arose about the wisdom of resettlement, withSaskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and others asking Trudeau to change the arrangements.

Though overall Trudeau’s stance was not affected, the deadline was pushed back to February and security screenings were held before arrival, in a bid to ease any apprehensions.

By Dec. 11, the first planeloads of Syrian refugees landed in Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada worked with the United Nation’s refugee agency to identify refugees for resettlement, on health screening as well as on background and security screening. Global Affairs Canada and Canada Border Services and numerous federal agencies had a hand in the processing; security measures included iris scans, fingerprinting, and photographs.

Once the refugees arrived in Canada, NGOs and social service agencies helped government-assisted refugees while private groups helped refugee families they sponsored.

[People hold a banner during a rally organized by the local Kurdish community calling on the Canadian government to allow more Syrian refugees into the country, in Vancouver, B.C., on September 6, 2015. Photo: The Canadian Press]

The welcome centre

As Friesen, director of settlement services at Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC) in Vancouver, and staff prepare for the second wave of Syrian refugees to arrive, he reflected on months of working at hyper speed.

In the fall of 2015, ISSofBC tripled its staff to prepare for refugees. They had to process and welcome 400 people in one month. (Vancouver typically has between 700 and 800 refugees annually.) They had to find affordable housing, get kids in school, secure language classes, and address issues of trauma. They’ve done this work for decades but not at this scale and not in such a compressed period of time. To that end, they increased their reception sites to seven in three cities, from one in one city.

“When critics say, ‘Why did you put Syrian families in hotels or why were they in temporary housing?” Friesen’s response is, “This was an extraordinary time in Canadian history. This was a bold humanitarian project. It was messy.”

Social services workers across the country, including those at the ISSofBC, were relieved when the government extended the deadline to the end of February. When asked about the delay, Immigration and Refugees Minister John McCallum told reporters in Ottawa: “I’ve heard Canadians across this country saying, yes you have to do it right, and if it takes a little bit longer to do it right, then take the extra time.”

Friesen says he expects the second wave to be manageable, because they are applying lessons learned from the first time. Ten full-time staff now track down permanent housing; they’ve expanded the orientation process for refugees as it relates to mental health and well-being; and, among other things, there is children’s programming at every one of the seven temporary reception sites.

[The extended family of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned trying to escape Syria with his family, arrived in Canada as part of the refugee resettlement program. Photo: The Canadian Press]

The welcome committee
It was the summer of 2015 and Leslie Garrett, a London, Ont.-based author and mother of three was stunned to see news footage of refugees crammed into rickety boats on rough seas. Many were drowning. She wanted to help but didn’t know how. Then came the devastating journey that took the life of Alan Kurdi, his brother, and his mother. Just as the photo was shaking Canada’s politicians into action, that’s when Garrett learned, through her church, about private sponsorship.

The Huron Refugee Committee at the Anglican Diocese of Huron has been sponsoring refugees for 30 years. The committee had enough funds to sponsor two families. Garrett didn’t hesitate to sign up. “When you are watching a humanitarian crisis, of that proportion in real time,” she says, “to not do something feels abhorrent to me.”

She understands why fellow Canadians might fear that members of ISIS are trying to enter Canada under the refugee program. “I’m informed enough to realize it’s not impossible but I believe it’s improbable,” she says. “There are processes and organizations [like the UN] that have been doing the security checks for many, many years. They aren’t suddenly going to speed up the process and ignore protocols and red flags.”

And to those who argue the money would be better spent on Canada’s own homeless or addicted, Garrett absolutely supports developing long-term solutions. She has seen the problems up close. A longtime volunteer at a local soup kitchen, she has also worked with socially marginalized women.

“The people for whom the refugee crisis doesn’t resonate, I say, by all means, roll up your sleeves and get involved in your city’s approach to homelessness or poverty or mental health. Or whatever speaks to you,” Garrett says. “I believe we can focus on all of it.”

[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau greet Syrian refugees Ahmad Al Krad, his wife Doaa Al Mahmed and his children Nasser, Panem and Muneer Ahmad at the Immigration Services Society in Vancouver, B.C., Sept 25, 2016. Photo: The Canadian Press]

A larger crisis
Friesen’s office is at the ISSofBC’s newly opened $24-million Welcome Centre in Vancouver, the first one-stop-centre of its kind in the world, where services for assisting and settling refugees and immigrants are all under one roof. It offers English-language classes, employment and settlement programs, child programs, mental-health programs, and more.

He pointed out how the Syrian resettlement initiative has brought attention to poverty in Canada and the country’s housing shortage, which impacts seniors on limited incomes and local residents.

“This is all part of a larger crisis in Canada,” he says. “We don’t want preferential treatment and it’s not about comparing the needs of one aspect of society to another. This is not a race to the bottom.

“We are looking [to the government] for a review of income support rates, a review of the housing crisis and the rental market.”

[A television interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays on a screen as members of the Kurdi family and friends wait to welcome Syrianrefugees Mohammad Kurdi and his family at Vancouver International Airport on Dec. 28, 2015. Photo: The Canadian Press]

Strong because of our differences

The Omer family are Syrian Kurds originally from a remote village in northern Syria. They traveled from a refugee camp in Turkey and landed at Pearson airport last February.

From there, they met Leslie Garrett and her sponsorship group.

Omer family Garrett joined the group’s social committee, where her job was to help the Omers integrate into their new community. She took them for out for ice cream, to the park, to a welcome dinner at a local mosque. Other members of the sponsorship committee take family members to doctor and dentist appointments, and have arranged language classes. “It’s a community effort,” Garrett says.

Over the summer Garrett’s daughter taught the family to swim. It was a first for the parents and their four children and they enjoyed it so much that whenever Garrett dropped by their rental townhouse, unannounced, the first words from any was usually an enthusiastic, “Swim?!”

In July, the second family sponsored by the church group arrived — a mother and her 10-year-old daughter who had lived in a Nepalese camp for internally displaced persons for seven years. Last weekend Garrett spent hours in the emergency room with the 10-year-old after she broke her arm riding a bike. But it took four days to convince the child to go to the hospital. “She is tough, stoic, and insisted she was fine,” Garrett sighed. Doctors had to sedate her and reset her arm.

“It does feel like I have two extra families,” Garrett says.

But despite how busy she is there is joy in getting to know these “extra” families. For instance, she wanted their first Thanksgiving celebration to be special. “I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to cook a big turkey and invite family and friends?” After a moment, she added, laughing, “In fact, it was more for me.”

Her Facebook post summed it up: “Last night we gathered in my home around a large (well, two actually) tables: Christians, Muslims, a Jew, a couple agnostics, an atheist. Guests spoke Nepali, Arabic, Spanish, French, Kurdish, Hindi and English. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, friends. We feasted. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables and too many desserts. And we gave thanks.”

Her dinner seemed to embody Trudeau’s statement: “Canada has learned how to be strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them, and going forward, that capacity will be at the heart of both our success, and of what we offer the world.”