Opinion Piece: The refugee crisis and ‘that’ picture
I will admit it. I am, literally, in tears as I write this.
The picture. Yes—that picture that started circulating yesterday of the 3 year old boy washed up on the beach in Turkey.
He and his family were trying to come here—to Canada. The heart strings are pulled.
My son is 3. Trying to think through everything that led to that picture is too much. The conflict in Syria. The danger and difficulty of travel, and not being able to find a safe place. The difficult choices that get made by people under tremendous pressure, faced with bad choices and even worse alternatives—and I don’t mean the refugees fleeing, I mean the civil servants and state agents enforcing policies and laws that were never designed to even start dealing with the kinds of need we are now seeing in the world. Those policies and laws that needlessly put the lives of innocents in danger, and make it safer to board an un-sea-worthy vessel in hopes of reaching a distant safe shore, rather than face a horrible and painful death. Immigration laws and systems, whether in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, North or South America, were not designed for dealing with the kind of human migration that is happening, mostly due to armed conflict around the world. The United Nations refugee agency—the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) says that there are almost 60 million people displaced—read on the run—because of conflict in the world. That is both refugees who have fled their country (like almost 4 million Syrians, almost 3 million Afghans, over 5 million Palestinians, and on and on) and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) within their countries (like almost one million Ukrainian IDPs, almost 9 million Syrian IDPs, almost 3 million Iraqi IDPs, and on and on). 30,000 people a day have to flee, according to the UNHCR. And it is not slowing down, the pace is picking up. Seriously—there is almost no peace anywhere. Everyone is rightly focused on the Middle East right now, especially Syria and Iraq. But there are equally, countless other conflicts and situations all around the world. Too many. I cannot wrap my head around it—it is overwhelming.
My heart bleeds, my eyes stream with tears when I think about it too long, and when I am sitting there feeling totally helpless my internal monologue consists of a sustained scream. What is wrong with the world? What is wrong with us? What, is going on?
I have been involved with sponsoring and resettling refugees through the Anglican Church of Canada since 2008. I know what it means to try and do something—I have met “those people” and in the most humbling moments of my life I have been called “brother” and “son” and “uncle” and other equally undeserved accolades. At the same time, I hate myself for having been on the phone with people calling from Libya, and Indonesia, and Brazil and other places and telling them that I can’t help them.
All I mean by all of that is that I am not just sitting in a corner crying and wringing my hands. I do that too, but I am and have been consistently involved with trying to help. For all of those accusations and criticisms of “bleeding heart liberal” etc, I try to put my money where my mouth is, I have tried to walk the talk.
But it’s not enough.
For two main reasons:
- the need is overwhelming. By June of this year the UNHCR said that the number is 59.5 million people.
- “That” picture. Because as much as there is that picture of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi, there are hundreds more just like him around the world every day. Children that die needlessly, let alone the men and women who also die, as a result of being displaced.
A couple of years ago, the UN had a slogan for World Refugee Day – One Refugee without Hope is too many. In my heart and mind, that holds true.
What can we do as individuals? Lots. You don’t have to feel helpless about this. There are all kinds of donations to be made to good organizations doing good work. You can find out about how to be involved with sponsoring and resettling refugees through a whole host of great Canadian organizations, religious, ethno-cultural, community, and other types (Hint: it’s not cheap. It’s time consuming. It is challenging in every possible way, and it is but one of the most worthwhile things you could possibly do).
IF you don’t want to do that, then advocate and work for policy change that would allow and facilitate our government to help more people. IF you don’t want to do that, then use your skills and abilities to figure out other good and creative ways to build up your community and make it a better place for everyone, even the people you don’t like.
If you don’t want to do that, then sit down and shut up.
If you think that it is too expensive, too complicated, too anything, then look at the picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi again, and think about writing a letter to his parents explaining all of the reasons why there is no room in Canada for them, why they don’t belong here, how we are too busy, and the life of their son was too expensive for us, why there isn’t a faster, better system for Canada to respond to the refugee crisis in the world—be my guest. But don’t delude yourself that you can’t do anything. Don’t compare refugee resettlement to any other form of outreach. It’s not about whether helping refugees is more important than dealing with homelessness, or addressing the systemic racism towards First Nations in our country because it’s not. Believe it or not, you can do both.
We still believe in the myth that our country is open and caring and loving to the world. Lots of refugees believe it too. Until they try to come here. Our country has changed drastically since the times we took in 60,000 Vietnamese, and 20,000 Kosovars. A friend of mine commented that the situation for refugees is awful but the situation for the much larger numbers who have not left and cannot leave is of course much worse and that has no happy ending. He continued that the fundamental issue is injustice of our security and privilege and exclusion of those outside of imaginary political boundaries. I am inclined to agree.
In one sense, I don’t care what party ends up in power after the upcoming election. What I want the politicians to do is to care. I went them to have big bleeding hearts that will see them do the impossible—or what they think is the impossible. In reality, the refugee portfolio is the smallest in the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, but it responds to some of the most desperate and some of those most in need in the world in a way that no other does. I want whoever is the next government and whoever is the next minister to allow the very good people who work at CIC to do their jobs. I want them to work with the many many people across our country who want to help, and to make it happen.
It’s time to change our hearts of stone back in to living hearts of flesh and blood. It is time to do more than we think we are able or have the capacity to do. Every time we think we can’t do it, experience usually proves us wrong.
One person, one human being without hope is too many, and every refugee on this earth is a human being, a fully formed person with lives that matter.
If you want to respond to what is happening, volunteer your time. Donate some money or goods. Help change a life.
- find one of the organizations in Canada that are involved in sponsorship. More than likely, they are active in your community. The Government maintains a list of the organizations called Sponsorship Agreement Holders. You will have to look up their phone number. Contact an organization close to you and tell them that you want to help.
- The government has a guide to the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.
- The Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, based in Toronto, is an amazing resource to the Private Sponsorship community. On their site you will find lots of information about the program, and ways that you can get involved.
- Lifeline Syria is an initiative that is working in the Greater Toronto Area to settle 1,000 Syrian refugees
This piece was originally written for the Anglican Church of Canada, and was revised by the author for posting here.
Scott McLeod is a member of the SAH Council, and the representative for the Anglican Diocese of Niagara (a SAH).