On a chilly December weekend in East Toronto, a makeshift “tent city” appeared as the cool night air rolled in.
In the span of an afternoon on December 5th, roughly 75 campers had set up 30 tents on a patch of grass outside the city’s Church of the Resurrection on Woodbine Ave.
The event, called “Sleep Out for Syrians”, aimed to raise money for and show solidarity with displaced Syrians, many of whom live in tents in refugee camps in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
For Sam Benson, it was a scene that was all too familiar. He left behind family in Syria and moved to Canada 15 years ago to rebuild a life.
“Those people did not leave willingly,” says Benson of the displaced Syrians. “They got forced to leave. There is pressure that made them leave.”
Benson speaks from painful experience.
“I had to leave because of the lack of freedom of religion and political expression,” says Benson, insisting he’s now exactly where he belongs.
A “burning need to help”
Elizabeth Dove with the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) is the lead organizer for “Sleep Out for Syrians”.
Dove says the East Toronto community felt a “burning need to help” after seeing images of Alan Kurdi in the media. The three-year-old Syrian boy drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe with his family. He made international headlines this summer after his lifeless body was photographed, lying facedown on the shoreline.
Roughly 75 campers had set up 30 tents on a patch of grass outside the city’s Church of the Resurrection.
“My daughter calls it the picture of the boy on the beach, but she’s never seen it,” says Dove, who says she’s like one of many parents she’s encountered who struggle to explain the Syrian crisis to their children.
“You want to share some of these realities of the world and why it’s important to extend beyond your reach and understand your privilege, and there’s only so much horror that kids can take,” says Dove. Nevertheless, she insists that learning about these and similar issues and participating in events like “Sleep Out for Syrians” is all part of the process of her children becoming global citizens.
Helping new families thrive, not just survive
The Canadian government suggests that settlement costs for a new refugee family will total somewhere around $27,000 for the first year — the equivalent of a family on social assistance.
Dove insists that’s not enough. In order to raise more money for incoming refugees, DECA partnered up with The Neighbourhood Group, which has pledged to raise $120,000 to support three families.
The East Toronto community felt a “burning need to help”.
Says Dove, “This money will help set them up in terms of housing, in terms of the needs that they have around their home, around town, [so they can] buy metro passes, that kind of thing.” She also hopes the money will help them feel less stressed while getting used to a new language and a new culture here in Canada.
At “Sleep Out for Syrians”, the group more than doubled its fundraising goal of $10,000, raising more than $20,000 from the event and an accompanying charity dinner.
Dove says the money raised will make the difference between incoming families surviving and thriving in Canada.
Welcoming new arrivals
As of this week, the first wave of Syrian refugees has begun to arrive at airports in Montreal and Toronto. From there, they will be sent to 36 destination cities around the country.
For Sam Benson, this is both a source of joy and concern. “I hope that they will be happier. They’re kids uprooted from their country, and being uprooted is not easy.”
“In my personal viewpoint, I would suggest a good screening because it’s not safe to get everyone in because who knows that those people were not seeded by the Islamic State,” he adds. “But they’re human beings, and we have to do something about it.”
With regards to public concerns over bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016, Dove says there will always be dissent in these circumstances.
The first wave of Syrian refugees has begun to arrive at airports in Montreal and Toronto.
“You can’t ignore the fact that there is a stream of people who are afraid of the ‘other,’” says Dove.
This ‘othering’ has applied to many ethnic groups throughout history, not just Syrian refugees.
“People are afraid of the Irish, afraid of the Italians, afraid of the Jews, afraid of the Yugoslavian Muslims, and they’ve all become the fabric of our society,” says Dove. “Productive citizens, treasured neighbours, and people really need to open their hearts because there’s nothing that bares out this is going to be a problem.”
According to her, Canada’s sudden intake of Syrian refugees is all in keeping with the country’s history of welcoming those displaced. “I think we need to continue to educate and be patient with Canadians and also remind them that history is completely on our side.”
Once enough funds have been raised, Lifeline Syria has agreed to match a family to the sponsor group, whom Dove says could arrive in Canada within weeks.