By Maria Assaf in Oxford, England
In 2016 Canada’s first Syrian newspaper, The Migrant, was founded by Kameel Nasrawi. Nasrawi worked as a journalist and screenplay writer in Damascus before he and his family came to Canada as refugees two years ago. The Migrant shares positive stories about Syrians across Canada to inspire others in the community to create their own success stories.
Many diasporas across Canada have started their own media outlets to connect their communities, share vital information and to create a sense of home. Some media outlets like the Philippine Reporter, whose publishers faced political imprisonment in the Philippines before settling in Canada, use journalism as a means to challenge the status quo and discuss the effect political events have on the members of their community.
Back in 2015, Europe was in the midst of a self-proclaimed “refugee crisis.” As the European Union discussed a controversial deal with Turkey that would keep refugees outside its borders, I followed seven Syrian refugee reporters in Istanbul. Leicester University published a paper I wrote in May 2016 about the challenges these reporters faced regarding freedom of expression.
Richard Carver and Guglielmo Verdirame conducted research in Rwanda and former Zaire in 2001 and found that refugee outlets help their communities exercise their right of freedom of expression and access to information. It also provides communities access to comprehensive and accurate data about conditions in their countries of origin, which is essential when deciding whether or not to repatriate.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Nasrawi explained that because of the language barrier, many newcomers are unaware of programs run by the Canadian government, programs designed to help them integrate into Canadian society.
Tiziano Bonini wrote that refugee reporting can be an important tool for those who may never be able to return home. For refugees, having publications that understand key issues in their community is vital. For example, The Migrant features articles on issues such as divorce, sex education and entrepreneurship, which the paper found to be pressing among the Syrian-Canadian community.
With 68.5 million people forcibly displaced around the world and 10,832 refugees accepted into Canada between January and September 2018, ensuring that refugee populations are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression is a pressing issue.
However, engaging in journalism as a means of challenging “the establishment” is an almost impossible task for refugees worldwide. Although Article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights foregrounds everyone’s right to speak out, international legislation often stops refugees from engaging with political issues.
The Organization of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, for instance, specifically forbids refugees from engaging in “subversive activities” or “attacking” a member state of the OAU “through the press, or by radio." Verdirame and Barbara Harrell-Bond found examples of African states that threatened to repatriate refugee journalists for their work.
Refugees often face an uncertain legal status. In 2016, Turkey hosted 2.7 million Syrian refugees as “guests." A signatory to the Refugee Convention, -the law that governs refugee affairs internationally, Turkey decreed to only grant refugee status to Europeans. These restrictions made it hard for refugee journalism to thrive.
Funding for refugee journalism often comes from donors such as INGOs or Western governments, and it comes with conditions attached. The Syrian reporters I met in Turkey mentioned that funding tended to go to Western-friendly outlets and was usually provided for six months up to a year, making it difficult for reporters to set up sustainable businesses. Outlets often self-censored and avoided discussing Turkish political affairs. “Those are restrictions we are putting on ourselves. Because Turkey is the only place we are left with to work,” one reporter said. In some cases, Syrian newspapers also had an uncertain legal status. In 2014, Turkish authorities began to request that media outlets have government-issued licenses to operate, which many outlets were not able to obtain. The Turkish government also monitors and often interrogates these outlets about their coverage.
Even in countries with fewer restrictions regarding free expression, doing journalism for refugees has been a historical challenge. Jewish refugee reporters fleeing Nazi Germany found that journalism schools in the United States refused to accept them, often citing anti-Semitic rationale. In Canada, Hermie Garcia, publisher of Canada’s Philippine Reporter, mentioned that he and his wife, who were journalists in the Philippines, were unable to find work in mainstream media because they lacked “Canadian experience.”
Major texts on journalistic scholarship, such as the Handbook for Journalistic Studies by Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch, don’t consider refugee reporting as its own genre. However, scholars like Ullamaija Kivikuru, Melisa Wall, Madeline Otis Campbell and Dana Janbek have warned that the lack of refugee voices in international media reinforces soft-colonial discourse by portraying refugee lives as less valuable than those of the “developed world.” Their study revealed that international journalists often took photos of Syrian refugees without their permission and printed distorted stories about them.
Palestinian reporters play an essential role in the production of international news about Palestine. But despite having relevant journalistic skills, their contribution is usually limited to translators, producers and fixers. Often, to keep their jobs at international news organizations, they avoid disclosing their views on their situation. Journalistic objectivity is often cited as the reason behind preventing those affected by conflict from telling their own stories. However, literature about multiculturalism and multimedia reporting shows that by collaborating across different communities, journalism can help address inequality.
Many refugee and migrant journalists end up starting their own community publications after being unable to work for the mainstream media in their host countries. Some abandon the profession altogether. This issue is not unique to journalism, as underemployment is a banner issue for many Canadian immigrants.
Several of the Syrian reporters I interviewed, sought alternative funding from international media outlets who didn’t attach conditions to their aid. Others tried using advertising, charging for content or getting donations from businessmen, but these often came with requests for editorial control.
One reporter said “I think before we were fighting for independent media from the regime. Now we are fighting for independent media from everyone.”
Members of the Syrian press in Turkey have formed alliances such as the Syrian Network of Print Journalists (SNP) to share expertise and facilities. Similarly in Canada, The Migrant recruits volunteer writers from different Arab communities, because many people in these communities are journalists in similar situations.
Existing in a challenging time environment or panorama. refugee journalism still manages to help their communities have more agency in the international conversation about their lives. However, much needs to be done in Canada and abroad to ensure that refugees can exercise their right to freedom of expression. Refugee reporting funders need to respect the freedom of the press and provide realistic timeframes to their aid for these outlets to thrive and become self-sustaining.
Finally, despite mainstream colonial definitions of objectivity, the people best suited to tell refugees’ stories are refugees themselves.
Maria Assaf is a Canadian journalist and MA in Development and Emergency Practice.
By: Deanna Cheng in Vancouver, BC
Sniffles came from the crowd. Even the children present knew to remain quiet.
Syrian journalist Maisoun Almasri said she saw her younger brother get shot by a Syrian government sniper. That sniper prevented anyone from trying to rescue the little boy.
Through a translator, Almasri said no one had any experience doing first aid.
“So my brother lost his life in our arms. We can’t do anything. Looking at me, looking at our mother, all those surrounding him, and we can’t do anything. I was haunted by the look in his eyes.”
She said that look haunted her every night. “The feeling of helplessness will kill you. The guilt of doing nothing will kill you.”
Almasri joined the White Helmets after that moment in 2013.
She uses that first memory as a reminder of what it means to be part of the organization and to prevent it from happening again.
In total, she has lost two younger brothers.
Three White Helmets volunteers shared personal stories of their lives in Syria, through Mohammed Alsaleh and two other translators, to a packed hall at Simon Fraser University. Those three volunteers wished for Vancouver residents to understand essay help the daily tragedies happening abroad, to have a better understanding of what the organization is about, and to pressure the Canadian government into helping them build a democracy similar to the one Canadians enjoy.
Syria Civil Defense
White Helmets, known officially as the Syria Civil Defense, is a formal emergency response team of civilian volunteers and an apolitical organization. Its four principles are humanity, objectivity, neutrality and independence.
Almasri said 112,000 lives have been saved by the White Helmets.
Nedal Izdden, one of its board members, said, “We are the only non-armed group doing this kind of work in Syria.”
He adds that 233 volunteers have lost their lives from this war.
By doing this humanitarian work of easing people’s suffering, Izdden said, the volunteers are sending a clear message that violence can only produce violence.
“We strive for stability in the area.”
The ultimate goal is peace, he said. Rebuild the cities and the country.
“We are the only ones praying to lose our jobs,” he joked.
In contrast to the quiet sounds of a little toddler burbling on her father’s lap in the room, Mustafa Almahamed talked about his 10-year-old nephew dying in his arms on December 15, 2012.
Turning to Almasri on the panel, he said, “That look haunted me too.”
Today, Almahamed is the Syria Civil Defense manager for Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria. He continues to face the results of cluster and barrel bombs.
In the last year and a half, the organization started helping people find places to hide when the bombs hit.
Breaking down Gender Barriers
Almasri shared what women have contributed to the cause. The customer support as well as the security measures taken by a online casino to protect your private data for example should be of utmost importance to you before you make your choice of registering and depositing your money and especially before you will start to play lovely online casino games with them.
When White Helmets was first established, she said, there were no more than 10 women.
Now there are over 400 female volunteers and more than 45 women centers.
“We provide the same service as men. This includes carrying people to the ambulances and search and rescue.”
The difference they have made are noted in certain conservative groups where women were uncomfortable being helped by men.
Almasri said gender was a barrier. “Women were able to fill the gap and provide support.”
The women centers provide first aid training, search and rescue efforts and trauma support for children, she said. Outreach programs have volunteers doing demonstrations at schools and in people’s homes.
The goal is one rescuer in each home.
“In six months, we have closed more than 30,000 cases,” Almasri said.
Currently, the organization is training women on how to work with unexploded devices and identify non-traditional weapons such as barrel bombs.
When asked how White Helmets remain apolitical and how to ensure it remains that way, Izdden said, “We all know countries have a humanitarian side to them and it is the side we are talking to.”
He said the organization is lucky to be recognized by countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.
In response to the second part of the question, Izdden said the 4,000 White Helmets are not angels.
“We are everyday people. Our work, like schools and institutions, is dedicated to a code of ethics and a code of conduct.”
He said when they recognize a member who isn’t committed to the organization’s four principles or to its code of ethics and conduct, they simply stop their association with the person and he or she is no longer a member.
Reasons for expulsion include using a gun or an affiliation with a political group.
“Mistakes do happen,” Izdden said. “We do our best to address them when they happen.”
Almasri still reports on life within Syria, issues such as safety and socio-economic affairs, in between her duties as the head staff of women’s affairs. She plans to commit fully to journalism after the White Helmets are not needed anymore.
Same as Izddan with dentistry. Same as Almahamed with auto mechanics.
The event was co-hosted by SFU International, PeaceGeeks and the British Consulate-General Vancouver. The three Syrians visited Ottawa with the assistance of Global Affairs Canada before coming to Vancouver.
Deanna Cheng is a member of the NCM Collective based out of Vancouver.
Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa
If there is one searing image of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe it is that of the orphanages of Romania. The regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed both contraception and abortion. As a consequence, thousands of women left babies that were either unwanted or those that they could not care for at state institutions. These institutions were understaffed and underfunded.
When the wall fell (Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989) the world got a look at these orphanages and what it saw was beyond shocking. Children were often tied to cribs, rocking back and forth in repetitive ways that spoke of a lack of human contact. Food was insufficient and the care devoted to life’s most vulnerable was largely absent. A global effort to help these kids ensued and while some undoubtedly ended up okay, thanks probably to the amazing resilience of the human body and mind, many did not and never recovered from their tragic start in life.
We are now faced with a similar situation in Iraq and Syria now that the parody of a state that called itself one – Islamic State – is sinking fast. Thousands of ‘fighters’ have died at the hands of airstrikes, in battle and in the flames of suicide attacks. Tens of thousands of civilians in cities like Mosul, taken by IS and ruled with an iron fist, have also died. And then there are the children.
One of the most striking aspects of the social Frankenstein that was IS was their effort to create an actual self-sustaining society.Unlike other jihads (Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya…), IS went out of its way to create an image of a normal, functioning state. Men were encouraged to leave their homes in the West and elsewhere to take up arms to ‘defend Islam’. Women were encouraged to come and marry those men and help create future generations of IS ‘Islamic Utopia’. Out of that arrangement came children, naturally, including young boys IS called the ‘lion cubs of the Caliphate’ (the men were the ‘lions’).
Some of these children were urged (coerced?) to take part in truly heinous acts of violence such as executions and many more were present at public beheadings. There was even one case of an Australian jihadi who posted a picture of his son, who appears to be between 8 - 10, holding a severed head. Truly disturbing.
Now that IS is all but defeated as a functioning group, what do we do with these children? We know that war is hell in all cases and that children suffer disproportionately when exposed to death and brutality. In some cases kids in Iraq were kidnapped by IS and either raped or forced to do terrible things.
There is already one case of a Yazidi mom in Winnipeg who has learned that her 12-year old son is still alive: she wants him back with her.
To me all of this is a no-brainer. These children deserve our help. Professionals with seasoned experience in dealing with the trauma of war need to be found and persuaded to assist in this regard. It won’t be easy: just as in the case of Romania, some children will be scarred for life.
We can both hate the barbarity that is IS and feel for the children that are its product. These young people are not at fault and we should do whatever we can to provide them with the best chances to achieve a normal life. If anything positive can come out of the enormous tragedy that was Islamic State maybe this is it.
Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years. His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.
by Binoy Kampark in Melbourne
At the psychological heart of every liberal is a milk soft tendency to succumb to the authoritarian personality, a feeling that, just around the corner, resistance will fold. Before such authority, adoration and bruising follow in menacing union.
“Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.” -Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (1904).
As US President Bill Clinton fumbled his way, fly-down, through the Oval office of the 1990s, his popularity ratings would soar with the next insidious missile strike on a place in Sudan or Afghanistan, places few US citizens would have been able to find on the map. What mattered was that impotence before official inquiries was not to be replicated by the man behind the trigger, even if it did entail the slaughter of a few anonymous coloureds of Islamic faith.
The Trump Phenomenon
President Donald Trump presents this problem in an even more profoundly obscene way. Impulsive, spontaneous, trigger happy at the end of a conversation, the boy man imperial figure is capable of doing anything that will change the game at a moment’s notice. Those interested in examining such behaviour best dust off their copies of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars to make sense of it all.
The entertainment fetishized complex of suffering, the reality show of dead and dying children, becomes the centre point for supposedly sensible policy. Ever long in having the ear of the intelligence community in Washington, David Ignatius dares find moral suasion in the act of firing 59 cruise missiles against a Syrian airbase.
“Even for a president who advertised his coldblooded pragmatism, the moral dimensions of leadership find a way of penetrating the Oval Office. In the case of President Trump, the emotional distance seems to have been shattered by simple, indelible images of suffering children in Idlib, Syria.” - David Ignatius
As Joan Walsh explains in The Nation, individuals such as Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s News Day (“I think Donald Trump became president of the United Sates” with the strikes); or MSNBC’s Nicholas Kristof (Trump “did the right thing”) signal that dire, toxic embrace that confuses power with purpose. From seeing Trump previously as an incompetent, unable buffoon unfit for the White House, he bloomed in the field of conflict.
We have seen such instinctive support before, notably from those within progressive circles. The liberal establishment, be it the human rights defender Michael Ignatieff or the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens, both strutted the line that weapons could be used to advance humanitarian and liberal agendas even as they destabilised and amputated a nation state.
Ignatieff took his point of departure as the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the United States, admitting that backing the mission that took the United States on an ideological crusade into Iraq in 2003 involved keeping company with those he did not like because they were “right on the issue.”
“As long as there was as much as a 1 percent chance that rogue states would transfer chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to suicide bombers, Britain and the United States knew where their interests lay, and they did not lie in deferring to the reluctance of their allies at the United Nations.”
Such an observation has all the ingredients that have since been replicated by Trump: a castigation of the international community, a general scolding of the UN system as barrier to firm action against atrocity, and the sense of catastrophe in the absence of such action.
Unity Against Terroristic Ideologies
As he was scribbling in March 2003 with Iraq smouldering, Ignatieff would say that he wished for a world with stable rules, and limitations on the use of force. But he also made it clear that supporting the invasion “entails a commitment to rebuild that order on new foundations.”
Hitchens was similarly converted in the carnage of the collapsing Twin Towers of New York, embracing the thesis against incongruously named Islamofascism, and seeing any means to counter it, even those forces not so inclined towards it (Saddam Hussein was far more secular in his terrorising approach) as conflated enemies requiring extinction.
So convinced was he by the case that any attempt to suggest he had erred in joining the powerful was dismissed as ill-informed claptrap. “We were never, if we are honest with ourselves, ‘lied into war’.” -Christopher Hitchens
In other instances, Hitchens was positively bloodthirsty, exulting in the infliction of those deserving of death. These villains, he wrote in 2002, would receive “those steel pellets”; they would “go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else… They’ll be dead, in other words.”
Such symptoms of automatic support for the beast of purpose are typical of the seductive allure of muscular power, which is, by its very nature, anti-intellectual and consoling. Intellectuals and members of the professional classes, while feeling repulsed by such fronts, often swoon to its application. They would love to be riding the storm of ill-thought in sadistic bliss, but prefer idyllic shelter whilst daddy does his bit for the patria.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com
Commentary by Phil Gurski
IF there was any doubt about what a Donald Trump presidency means for the U.S. over the next four years, and by extension for all of us, there is little doubt now. In the first week alone, a flurry of executive orders have been signed on a whole bunch of issues that Mr. Trump promised he would act on.
Of interest to me is, of course, the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The Trump administration is selling this as a national security issue – a way to keep America and Americans safe.
But is it?
On the one hand, yes. Terrorists from those seven nations will be unable to enter the U.S. and carry out their heinous plots against innocent people.
The question, however, is: how many individuals who have carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. after 9/11 came from those countries (or from any country for that matter) to execute their plans? To my knowledge, the answer is precisely – zero. Every attack has been perpetrated by either U.S. citizens or landed immigrants who radicalised almost entirely in the U.S. Hence, a ban on citizens from the listed countries would not have stopped a single incident.
Fact is, immigration has zero relationship to terrorism, absolutely zero.
As an aside, it is of interest that several countries are not on the list – i.e. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, would it not have made sense to put that country on the list?
Immigration a lifeblood
Some would argue that since a few people who went on to commit terrorism in the U.S. were born elsewhere, a ban on Muslim immigration (Mr. Trump’s denials notwithstanding, his act is exactly that) is justified. Perhaps, but immigration is a risk at the best of times.
How do we ensure that an immigrant does not become a murderer? A rapist? An embezzler? A wife abuser? A tax cheat? As there are no guarantees, maybe we should have no immigration at all.
I am kidding – immigration is the lifeblood of a society and the few negatives do not measure up to the many positives.
It is highly unlikely that this move by the new U.S. government will have any real effect on terrorism. Attacks will still be planned by those living in the U.S. A small number of Muslims will continue to be radicalised to violence in the U.S. Terrorism will remain a very rare tragedy.
We must also not discount the propaganda bonus this gives actual terrorist groups like Islamic State. IS has long said that the West hates Islam and that Western governments do not want Muslims to live in their countries. As a result, Muslims must perform hijra (migrate) to a Muslim land. The Trump move underscores and supports what the terrorists are saying.
I am happy that Canada’s Trudeau government is not going down that path. Canada is proudly a nation of immigrants, including Muslim ones, and will remain so, I hope.
Terrorism is real and requires real solutions. The Trump administration immigration ban is not one of them.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/
Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa
Historically, amnesties have been offered to former combatants in an attempt to stop the violence and allow a country the chance to rebuild itself.
A really good example where an amnesty seemed to work would be in South Africa where it was part of that nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission post-Apartheid. On the other hand, amnesty for fighters was rejected in the recent Colombian referendum on ending the half century war with the FARC.
Amnesties can be hard to sell. Conflicts where hundreds or thousands of people have been killed by insurgencies or guerrilla movements or terrorists can result in acrimony and long memories where populations are unwilling to let those responsible for the violence get off lightly. This is what appears to have happened in the narrow defeat of the Colombian referendum.
A question that is being asked by some is whether we should consider offering an amnesty to returning foreign fighters with Islamic State. One such proposal was published recently by David Wells (full disclosure: Wells is an acquaintance and, like me, a former intelligence analyst). He wrote that by offering a "plea bargain" to those who are coming home disillusioned, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies could focus their limited resources on those who pose a real threat to their homelands upon return.
Brutality and inhumanity
Wells does offer a few cautionary statements about the difficulties of carrying out such an amnesty and I want to build on those (NB: more in my forthcoming book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security).
To my mind, the single greatest obstacle to social acceptance of any form of amnesty for those who joined IS is the sheer brutality and inhumanity of the group's actions. Whether we are talking about beheadings, immolations, throwing people off roofs, raping girls or selling women into slavery, the depravity so rampant among IS members puts them in a special level of hell.
No one will want to see these animals get any break on the punishment they so richly deserve.
Compounding this problem is determining who did what in theatre. Aside from the really stupid ones who posted videos online boasting of their lust for violence and those even more stupid to return home – assuming they have not been Hellfired into oblivion (the best case scenario really) – we will probably not be able to determine who the worst actors are.
States will want to prosecute those guilty of war crimes, but unless we have posted videos as evidence, this will be very difficult. Gathering such evidence in a conflict zone like Syria is unquestionably a challenge and it is not as if we can rely on Syrian authorities for help (besides, given recent cases of Syrian-Canadian "collaboration" in several alleged torture incidents, Syrian assistance would be politically impossible even if it were offered).
Furthermore, what do we do with the confessions/denials of some returnees? While it is probable that there are legitimate instances of those who are disgusted with what they saw and may not have actually contributed to the horror, how do we make that determination? Whom do we believe?
In the end, the fact that these individuals have left Canada (or many other countries) to join IS (or other groups) is a criminal offence and it is in the interest of the state to pursue legal action where the evidence is available. Each case will have to be judged on its merits and there may be ones where an amnesty – or the decision not to take to trial – can be considered.
We do have one instance of this already in Canada when the Crown chose not to charge three young women from the Toronto area after they unsuccessfully tried to travel to Syria to join IS (they were interdicted in Egypt thanks to excellent police work on this end).
We also have to bear in mind that some of these ex-combatants will still pose a threat to our societies. We have already seen attacks carried out by returnees and we will see more. It is not unreasonable to predict that over the next five years or so our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be very busy trying to stop future attacks by returning terrorists.
I suppose that amnesties are feasible where there are at least some people on both sides of the conflict who can see the perspective and justification of violence from the other's point of view. And, yet, it is impossible to imagine a scenario where anyone views the actions of IS this way.
There are also significant differences in the nature of conflict where amnesties appear to have had a positive effect – say South Africa – versus ones where the "forgiving" population has not been beset by direct warfare in their own backyards. If you are not from Syria or Iraq, you have not witnessed the daily carnage caused by IS and are thus less willing to take a chance to end it by offering amnesty.
I fear that anyone who proposes forgiving returning terrorists will have a very tough job ahead of them. And, I am not sure that this is a good idea in the first place.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/
Book Review by Rosanna Haroutounian in Gatineau
The histories of Canadians are plentiful, rich, and complex. We can never know all of them, but even sharing just a few can open windows into many unknown pasts.
Coming Here, Being Here: A Canadian Migration Anthology brings together people’s stories of arriving in Canada, as told through first-hand accounts and by those who have studied immigration and helped newcomers along the way.
Edited by Donald Mulcahy, this collection of stories about the immigration experience seems a long time coming. It is the first time I have had the chance to read about such a wide scope of experiences from across the country in one book.
On the other hand, this collection could not have come at a better time, as we seem of late to be in need of reminders about how integral these stories are to our national identity.
Struggles and successes
In the story titled “They Left Their Homes with Nothing, and Made a New Life with Hard Work,” Dana Borcea shares the stories of some of the 6,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to Edmonton 25 years ago as “boat people.” Learning about their struggles and successes, I could not help wondering what stories the newly arriving Syrian refugees will tell in 25 years about coming to Canada.
Like the stories of refugees from Vietnam, they will undoubtedly include working at menial jobs to support their families, struggling to learn a new language, and adapting to a new culture. Will they also realize their dreams for peace and belonging?
Another story I know will stay with me for a long time is “Prejudice,” by Anton Capri. It recounts the author’s arrival as a DP, or displaced person, in Canada after the Second World War. At his first baseball game, the other children laugh at the boy who can’t hit the ball – except Dave, who becomes young Anton’s first friend.
Anton feels guilty that the other students now shun both him and Dave, yet to his surprise Dave thanks him for being his friend. The impact of this short narrative is felt in its ending and for that reason cannot be revealed in a simple summary, but it is sure to leave readers pondering about the lengths and limits of that ugly word – prejudice.
Our privileged lives
The stories also present diverse viewpoints on the present state of immigration in Canada. Monica Kidd writes in “The Music of Small Things” about being “purple with rage” at the government after seeing the photo of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi – a young boy who escaped the current violence in Syria, only to be swept up on a beach in Turkey.
“We lived privileged lives in a wealthy country and would find a way to sponsor a refugee family,” Kidd decided with her friends.
Meanwhile, the prominent author Henry Beissel calls Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to settle 50,000 Syrian refugees in Canada in 2016 “hasty,” adding that the government did so without regard for demographic and security concerns. His suggestion that this will lead to the creation of ghettos, the “breeding ground of discrimination and racism,” contrasts with the image of a welcoming and pluralistic Canada described in an essay he delivered in 1985, also included in his contribution to this anthology, titled “No Country for a Master Race.”
Story after story in this anthology illustrates the challenges people must overcome to arrive here, and how hard they must work to stay and ultimately belong here.
Even the notion that our values and customs are under threat seems to be challenged when in “Writing in French in Alberta,” Laurent Chabin points out: “No one threatens a language that is freely used, and there is no reason to invent enemies when all one really needs to do is practice and write in one’s own language.”
This can be said of all the traditions Canadians hold dear and fiercely protect. The best way to defend these qualities – which in my mind include equality, respect, and generosity – is to practice them freely.
As Batia Boe Stolar writes in "I Am an Immigrant," though they carry some burdens, the experiences of immigration should be accepted and acknowledged.
“Identifying myself as an immigrant is a self-conscious act that grants me a degree of agency, allowing me to exert some control over my identity,” she writes.
“I must here confess that there is a part of me that sometimes relishes the fact I have a story to tell that others crave to hear…. My markings open doors and close others; they generate other stories about other people’s experiences too.”
Here’s to hoping this collection of stories is a spark that ignites others to tell of the victories celebrated and hardships endured in coming to this country and calling it “Home.”
Commentary by Steve Dooley in Surrey
A Surrey forum held earlier this year on helping Syrian refugees settle in our area started with an ice-breaker. Participants were asked to stand if they were born outside Canada.
About a third of the room stood.
They were next asked to stand if their parents were born outside the country. More stood.
Grandparents? More took to their feet.
And at great grandparents, nearly the whole room was standing.
In the multicultural dynamic that is Canada, we know that apart from our Aboriginal communities, all of us, at one point in our family lineage, came from somewhere else. And over the nearly 150 years of nation building, there have been many paths to becoming part of the Canadian fabric.
Some have been relatively easy, others, born of great tragedy – those fleeing war, trauma and abuse, not necessarily coming to Canada as a choice.
Eager to contribute
And with the picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey, the world opened its eyes to the latest forced migration from Syria, with many Syrian refugees arriving in Canada over the past six months.
Many refer to the settlement of Syrian refugees as a crisis. There have been fears that federal government targets would overwhelm settlement services and host municipalities.
There have been many challenges in meeting immediate and short-term needs of refugees, who woke up after a long flight, finding themselves in this new place called Canada.
Long wait lists for English training, housing shortages, particularly for larger families, and lack of employment opportunities are very real problems being addressed in communities across Canada.
A recent experience I had with a small group of refugees in Surrey has led me to believe that far from a crisis, the settlement of new refugees in Canada is in fact a huge opportunity.
Being a good neighbour
As the lead researcher on a year-long, recently completed study involving Simon Fraser University and several community partners, I had the pleasure of working with seven recent refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq and El Salvador. They were recruited as project research assistants (RAs) to help set the study’s scope, recruit participants, lead focus groups, interpret findings and participate in community planning.
While each had a personal story of tragedy and survival, they were eager to contribute, brought a broad set of skills and capacity to the work, and become leaders within their own communities.
The study, Our Community Our Voice: The settlement and Integration Needs of Refugees in Surrey, B.C., was a joint effort between SFU, the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) and the City of Surrey.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada provided funding through the Surrey LIP. SFU’s involvement exemplifies the University’s commitment to engaging our communities, being a good neighbour and helping to solve issues that affect our communities.
Our report, which will help the city draft its settlement plan, spoke to the many issues facing refugees, and lays out a series of recommendations, from additional resources for new or existing programs targeting health, language, employment and housing, to improving how we communicate with refugees at all levels of the settlement process, and helping the community to better understand and engage with refugees during their transition.
Talents and dreams
No one understands this better than the refugees themselves, who deeply informed our discussions. And our RAs were the bridge.
In community development we often refer to skills development as “capacity building”.
It was clear to me that these refugees brought a lot of capacity to the amazing work they did, and I was thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to work with this stellar group of individuals.
There is still much work to be done, but these RAs showed us first-hand how the refugees coming to Canada bring far more than the label imposed on them. They have talents and dreams and hopes for their children.
And, while some will find their way back to their homelands, most will become part of the Canadian fabric, stay and make contributions to nation building.
Some will live quiet and simple lives, while others go on to become lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers, or go into politics, start a new business venture, open a new media outlet.
They will build things, work in construction and on the factory floor. So will their children. But through the actions of daily living, all will contribute to the Canadian dynamic.
Based on Canadian history and my own experience from this study, I know, with time, there is space for opportunity to trump tragedy. It is not a crisis we have on our hands, but another in a long series of humanitarian support efforts that over time will lead to positive impacts on our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation.
Thirty years from now, in another community forum on how to support the latest wave of refugees, people will be asked to stand if they are born outside Canada. The Syrian refugees of today will stand thinking back on their own experiences of settlement.
And, they will lend a hand.
Steve Dooley has been the Executive Director of Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus for the past 3 years. Having developed his community based research interests over 20 years, he continues to address social and civic issues such as refugee settlement, poverty, and crime reduction. Steve co-chairs the City of Surrey's Poverty Reduction Coalition and sits on Surrey's Local Immigration Partnership (LIP).
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by Janice Dickson in Ottawa
Sitting cross-legged on a thin UNHCR mat covering a concrete floor and nursing her 14-month-old, Yasmeen Al-Alow was glad to be out of the jail that is Village 5 — Azraq’s notorious camp-within-the-camp.
Surrounded by barbed wire, Village 5 and Village 2 are where new Syrian refugees were taken before Jordan sealed its borders. Those inside the villages haven’t been allowed outside the wire for months. The Jordanian government fears the new arrivals pose a security threat to the other refugees in the camp. Containing new refugees in the prison-like camps is one way to decrease the chance of ISIS infiltration, authorities say.
Those living in Village 5 and Village 2 are virtual prisoners; unlike Syrian refugees who live in Azraq’s other villages, they are not allowed to walk through the streets, to the supermarket, or anywhere at all.
The Azraq refugee camp, located in a remote, sweltering desert landscape southeast of the capital Amman, is home to nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war. Half of Azraq’s residents are children.
Most of the Syrians living in Villages 5 and 2 arrived from a desert region surrounded by sandbanks along the Jordanian border. The United Nations estimates that more than 85,000 people are stranded in Ruqban — a camp near the point where Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet — and Hadalat camp, 80 km to the west, where Al-Alow and her family were stranded for months.
iPolitics asked to visit Villages 5 and 2. A government official at the camp said it’s forbidden, citing security reasons. Photos were not permitted, either.
Since November, the Canadian government has welcomed nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees. King Abdullah of Jordan told the BBC in February that his country is at the “boiling point” because of an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The king said the international community has to offer more help if it wants Jordan to continue taking refugees.
The Jordanian government compromised, however, and set up Village 5 in March. It was a move intended to help international aid agencies trying to expedite the admission of thousands of refugees, like Al-Alow, who were stuck waiting at the border.
Al-Alow, 21, and her husband Muhammed, 26, had been living in their new caravan in Village Six for just over a week. Two jugs of water and a small kettle sat atop the small table at the front of the caravan that serves as a kitchen.
Al-Alow said she and her family are refugees by accident. They left their home in Syria a few months ago with the intention of visiting family in Jordan — but when they arrived at the Syrian border, they had no choice but to live in the berm while they waited to get into Jordan. That wait took four months; by then, the smugglers who drove them to the Syrian border could not take them back home.
“My family came to visit from Kuwait and they were on the other side of the barbed wire,” Al-Alow said via a translator. That visit lasted five minutes.
“We didn’t talk. We just cried.”
Kuwait has also sealed its borders, blocking Syrians from joining family members there.
Najwa Al-Shaikh, 32, and her four children arrived from Syria a few months ago; her family also lived in Village 5. Al-Shaikh’s mother arrived beforehand so their caravan is quite homey. Her mother has set up a little convenience store where children come to buy candy.
Despite the 35-degree heat, Al-Shaikh offered me hot tea and sugar on a silver tray, a display of Syrian hospitality found in every caravan I visited.
Al-Shaikh said she and her young children waited in the desert for months with little food or water in harsh conditions before they were granted permission to enter Jordan.
Her husband was arrested by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, she said. Sometimes, regime authorities tell her that her husband is still alive — other times they tell her he’s been killed.
She gestured toward her 11-year-old daughter Ala, who pulled up her pant cuff to reveal a thin leg covered with scars.
“One of my daughters was killed by the regime, and Ala was injured by the rockets,” she said. All Ala remembers is playing in the playground that day.
The situation in Azraq is “very bad,” the young woman said. Her mother shook her head and suggested that in a month or two, her daughter will adjust.
Aecha Mohammed Shaban, 29, and her four children are thankful for the safety the camp offers.
“In the beginning it was very difficult to live here, how can we live here?” said Shaban, sitting on a long cushion which doubles as a bed for her and her children at night.
Suddenly, the sound of gunshots coming from a nearby military base shattered the desert silence. The children — who had been smiling by their mother’s side — covered their ears and began to cry.
iPolitics’ Janice Dickson visited Jordan from July 9 – July 25th. Dickson spent long days in Jordan’s refugee camps talking to Syrian refugees about the challenges in the camps and their gruelling journey across the desert to get there.
Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca
OTTAWA—Anthony Lake was in a Syrian hospital a few months ago watching surgery being performed on a sniper victim, whose age he could not determine because of the severity of the injuries.
Lake, the executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund, watched the doctors pluck pieces of the patient’s jawbone out of his shattered face using what he called “old instruments” in a setting he described as “sort of an operating room.”
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit