From numbers to neighbours

This week’s guest blog is written by Rachel Clements, student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. She attended the Ottawa Office annual student seminar in February called “Refuge. Asylum. Displacement. Canada’s response.”

Amal’s eyes are dark like the depths of the ocean she crossed to get here, but they light up exquisitely when she sees me enter the room.

“Rashelle!” she calls out, greeting me by my name in Arabic.  It’s Saturday night, and I am visiting the hotel that serves as a temporary home to over 300 Syrians until they are able to find housing. Every night, a local organization runs ESL classes for the children at the hotel, but the excitement in the room makes me suspect that I will be doing all the learning tonight.

“Taa’li hon!” Amal beckons me to over to where her family is seated, and our attention shifts to the front of the room where a dozen men in traditional Syrian clothes perform zaffe, an Arab musical procession with drums and singing usually performed at weddings.

zaffe instruments

Instruments such as these are used in the Arabic zaffe.  Photo courtesy http://www.alazifoon.com

The room descends into what I can only describe as joyful chaos. The adults present are far outnumbered by the children who restlessly parade around the room; some with younger children toted on the shoulders of older siblings, some daring to dance in the middle of the chanting men. The women in the room respond with high-pitched tongue trilling, known as zalghouta, which is used to express the joy of the moment.

Amal places her younger brother, Hassan, in my lap as she gets up to join in the dancing. Hassan’s hands settle into mine, and Amal’s mother smiles at me through warm eyes. For some reason, I did not expect people fleeing war to be so open and inviting. But this was my ignorance. They had more joy to share than I.

From February 18-20, I was privileged to attend a three-day student seminar hosted by MCC’s Ottawa Office, focused on Canada’s response to refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons. The seminar afforded us the opportunity to hear from several politicians, civil servants, MCC staff, and NGO representatives currently involved in Canada’s resettlement efforts. A large focus of the seminar was on the newly-arrived Syrians within Canada.

Jenny Kwan new

Jenny Kwan, NDP Critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. MCC photo

During MCC’s seminar, Jenny Kwan, MP of East Vancouver and NDP Critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, addressed some valuable concerns that Syrians face as they integrate into Canada. Kwan expressed concern that while the government is focused on meeting numbers, the capacity on the ground to receive the newcomers is deficient, and resources are not being used to their full potential.

A problem arises from governmental policy whereby funding is granted only to NGO’s that have been involved with resettlement efforts in the past. While these NGO’s are overburdened and running at full capacity, other NGO’s and community groups are willing to help out but are unable to receive funding. Without the mobilization of all our resources, integration into Canadian society is proving to be a painful and slow moving process. Month-long wait-lists for adult ESL classes mean that language continues to be a barrier to integration, and many Syrians feel socially isolated and unable to articulate their needs.

Kwan called to attention the importance of community and familiarity for refugees. Though privately sponsored refugees arrive to be welcomed into a community of support, government sponsored refugees are often more vulnerable without a community to assist them in settling. They must rely on income assistance alone, and have difficulty finding affordable housing and access to medical care. Additionally, most school systems don’t have the infrastructure in place to accommodate for the arrival of the Syrian children. The language needs as well as trauma and therapy needs of these children must be addressed, otherwise Canada risks facing large fallout down the road.

In light of these issues desperately needing to be addressed, what can we do to help?

Kwan suggested Canadians should remain true to our identity of generosity and openness to others. Canadian citizens can fill the gaps in the integration process by contacting resettlement agencies and offering volunteer assistance. Many communities are beginning family match programs, where Canadian families are matched with Syrian families to act as a point of reference and support throughout the process of integration.

Elizabeth May new

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party. MCC photo

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party, said Canada’s resettlement process has been slow in the past and is in great need of rebuilding. May called upon us to be patient with the new government as it rebuilds and begins to mobilize.

May also expressed great confidence in the federal Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, who has been mandated to look after long-term resources for refugees addressing matters such as PTSD, mental health, and isolation. These needs will continue to be addressed long after the refugees have settled into Canada. But in the meantime, May urged us in the same way that Kwan did, to be gracious and generous hosts. Befriending and becoming a stable, long-term friend to one Canadian newcomer can do more to ease trauma and mental health concerns than several clinical appointments can.

Heeding the advice of many of the speakers at the seminar, I now spend three nights a week at the hotel, trying to engage and connect with the Syrian children as they wait for permanent housing. Amal and I have built a friendship based on shared lessons in English and Arabic. She now affectionately refers to me as  “Okhti,” meaning “Sister.” The name Amal in Arabic means hope, and in many ways, this is what she is to me.

These children teach me valuable lessons. Each day when I greet them saying, “Keifik?” meaning, “How are you?” the children respond, “Al-hamdulillah!” meaning, “Thanks be to God.” I have learned this word of gratitude is used in all cases, no matter how the person is feeling, because all of life, in its blessings and discomfort, is a gift from God.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Refugees and Rights: A Compassionate Response

This week’s guest blog is written by Amy Matychuk, law student at the University of Calgary.

From February 18-20, I was part of a group of 30 students and MCC staff from across Canada who met in Ottawa to learn about refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons at the annual MCC Student Seminar. We heard from United Nations staff, from Members of Parliament, from civil servants, from MCC staff who work with refugees, and from volunteers with newcomers to Canada.Thomas' selfie photo

For two and a half days, we learned about displaced persons, Canada’s response to their needs, and ways in which we can help. Those who work intimately with refugees were able to provide our group with insights into the steep set of challenges that refugees face. I learned many details both about the Syrian refugee crisis and about refugees worldwide that helped to inform my perspective on how Canadians and Canadian Christians should respond.

Firstly, I was shocked to learn how few refugees have the opportunity to resettle in places like Canada and how many remain in refugee camps for indefinite lengths of time. I assumed that refugee camps were places of transition, but many people stay there long enough to have children and grandchildren. I found this fact heartbreaking, but also valuable to know as I respond to those around me who are upset or suspicious about the refugees the Canadian government is accepting.

So much of what news stories seem to focus on are things like security risks or the difficulty of integrating refugees or the amount of money spent on re-settlinmccstudentseminar-8g Syrians that could be used to benefit the lives of Canadians. In responding to these suspicion-filled narratives about refugee resettlement, I think it is helpful to focus on the humanity of people who have no choice but to spend huge portions of their lives with no opportunity to work, no access to education, and sometimes very little hope for their futures. Elizabeth May, one of the speakers, described the many years refugees spend in camps as “a waste of human potential.”

As Christians, we should be less concerned about our own wealth or safety than about being God’s hands and feet and participating in God’s work of, as Jeremiah 29:11 puts it, giving others the chance to prosper and to have a hope and a future.

Secondly, I learned about the difficulties refugees face once they reach Canada. As though being displaced from their home countries because of threats of violence wasn’t enough shock and upheaval for a lifetime, they often struggle with some aspects of integration.

For this new influx of Syrian refugees in particular, the government infrastructure for receiving refugees is sparse and disorganized. Because of linguistic and cultural barriers, they don’t know where to go grocery shopping, how to use public transit, or how to manage the very small living stipend that the government provides them (the same amount as a Canadian on social assistance).mccstudentseminar-9

These facts underscored for me how important it is to be on the lookout for those who need my help, as a Canadian and an English speaker but also as a friend, advocate, and listening ear. As a student, I can’t give much financially, but I realized that I still have time and skills that could dramatically change someone’s life for the better.

Thirdly, the presenters at the seminar challenged me to reconsider the way I view my rights as a Canadian. I can guard my rights jealously; I can protest that it is not my fault that I was born in a country that guarantees my rights to movement, expression, and religion, and that I should not be responsible for the well-being of people I have never met because I happened to be born in a wealthy country.

On their face, these statements are logical. Nothing legally forces me to be concerned for Syrian children in refugee camps, and there is no code that sets out my obligation to ensure their rights are respected. However, if I consider my rights as a Canadian alongside the values Jesus exemplified, I should instead be humbled that I did nothing to earn my good fortune. I should consider it the greatest and most significant expression of my rights as a Canadian that I seek to include others in the same freedom and opportunity that I enjoy.

In seeking to extend these rights as far as I can, I should avoid the temptation to fear that my own wealth or safety will be compromised. However compelling as these arguments may be, they are distractions that prey on my own greed and self-interest rather than enabling me to live as Jesus would have.

I hope that in the years ahead, Canadians will be able to look back and be proud of the welcome we extended when the vulnerable needed our help the most.