The Toronto Star by Bree Akesson 20 December 2016
You may feel helpless watching the horrors in Aleppo unfold on your television screen and across social media over the last several days. Perhaps you have expressed your outrage or shook your head in disbelief. But there is something that Canadians can do to respond.
Due to the ongoing violence in cities such as Aleppo, millions of Syrians have fled and are living in neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon. In fact, one-in-four people living in Lebanon today is a refugee. But life for Syrian families living in Lebanon continue to struggle with unemployment, limited access to education, and discrimination from local residents.
Last month, I travelled to Lebanon and visited families’ closely packed makeshift tents surrounded by mud and streams of sewage. I found other families living in small, rundown apartments shared with several other families, struggling to pay the $400 per month for rent. Many parents do not allow their children to attend school, because they are afraid for their safety.
These conditions are expected to worsen since the recent presidential election of former army chief Michel Aoun. The International Crisis Group argues the Lebanese government’s response to the Syrian crisis is contributing to further instability within the country. Lebanon is clearly not a “safe haven” for Syria’s displaced masses.
Not surprisingly, all of the families I spoke with desperately longed to return to their homes in Syria. With tears in their eyes, mothers and fathers described their lives before the war. Given pen and paper, all the children drew their idealized homes in Syria, even if they were just babies when they fled. Yet the families were also realistic that returning to Syria is not an immediate possibility. They acknowledged a second option: to seek a better life for themselves and their families in a country of resettlement, such as Canada.
In March of this year, Trudeau’s Liberal government announced it had reached its campaign goal of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees through a five-phase rapid protection response. After reaching this goal, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said the pace of resettlement would now be “much diminished.”
But the Canadian government should not see this achievement as the end of the response. Rather it should continue to maintain a refugee resettlement rate that matches the intensity and urgency of the crisis, heightened by the recent images we have seen coming from Aleppo. Indeed, the Canadian government should be proud to have reached this milestone. But with atrocities such as those occurring in Aleppo an end to the Syrian conflict is becoming increasingly elusive. Canada must do more. And Canada can do more.
Rather than feeling helpless about an event occurring 9,000 kilometres away, Canada should continue to support and incentivize private sponsorship. Such programs would alleviate some of the financial and logistical burden the government currently shoulders by sharing it with the many caring and committed Canadians who are asking, “What can we do to help?”
Most importantly, the sponsoring group and the newcomer family creates a sense of community for all involved. I have seen this develop through my own group, which has organized potluck meals, ice skating trips, and football matches with the extended family members already resettled here in Canada.
As public focus on the plight of Syrians ebbs and flows, now is the time to continue supporting refugees, resisting Mr. McCallum’s suggestion that the pace of resettlement should be “much diminished.”
We must urge the Canadian government to capitalize on its most valuable resource — its people — and respond to the violence we are witnessing in Aleppo with compassion and practical support for displaced Syrian families. In this way, Canada can serve as a model for other countries that should also be urged to address the plight of the world’s displaced.
Bree Akesson is an assistant professor of social work at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on the experiences of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.