A chance meeting, a warm welcome for refugee family

(Phil here, with an update before I post this November, 2015 “counterpoint” column to this blog: in November the new Liberal government had yet to amend its plan to bring 25,000 refugees to the country by the end of 2015. The plan changed when it became apparent it couldn’t be done. Instead, an amended plan aimed for 10,000 by the end of the year, and a total of 25,000 by the end of February. In mid-February it still appeared that was going to happen.)

 A few months ago a friend of mine was visiting family in London, Ontario and, as she loves to do on such occasions, had taken her two grandchildren for a walk to a nearby park where there’s a playground.

She wasn’t the only one. A man was there with his several young children. And, as is the way with little ones who have not been spoiled by the prejudices of the adult world, the boys and girls began to play together.

My friend, who loves children and has an open, welcoming heart, included all the children in her enjoyment of the moment on that pleasant summer day. The father wanted to express his appreciation. Newly arrived in Canada, he spoke little English. But he managed to say, “I from Syria.”

He invited my friend home to meet his wife and enjoy their hospitality, which is a significant gesture of esteem in Middle Eastern culture.

The man and his wife and their children were among the small number of Syrian and other refugees brought to Canada from squalid camps in the Middle East and parts of Europe after dangerous journeys, especially across the Mediterranean Sea in overloaded boats. Thousands have drowned, and hardly a day goes by without reports of more suffering the same fate.

The body of a little Syrian boy that washed up on a Turkish beach early this past September finally focused the whole world’s attention on the scope and horror of the unfolding tragedy.

Here in Canada it quickly had an impact on the recent federal election campaign with the now-former Conservative government coming under attack for its slow response to the refugee crisis, coupled with what many people, myself included, regarded as the Conservative campaign’s anti-Islamic, fear-mongering attitude. It backfired and was a factor in the Harper government’s defeat.

Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal government are faced with the huge challenge of keeping their promise to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of this year.

That’s now just 47 days away, 47 days for the government and its refugee-processing bureaucracy to switch gears from very slow to very fast; 47 days for churches and other caring groups of people to get organized, raise money, find some kind of decent, affordable housing; 47 days for the government to find transportation; 47 days to marshal the military for a huge, disaster-assistance type job, possibly including the preparation of temporary housing on military bases.

And all that and more in the midst of the onset of a Canadian winter, making it that much more of a challenge for all concerned, El-Nino or not,

Is it doable? That is indeed a more than fair question in the midst of that undeniable reality.

John McCallum, Canada’s new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said earlier this week the government is committed to acting fast to keep it’s 25,000-refugee promise, but also committed to doing it right and doing it well.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterre, called Canada’s plans a “huge gesture of solidarity” other countries should follow.

So it is, and not the least because it’s an action being taken by one of the most multicultural countries on Earth, a place where people of virtually every nationality, culture, and religious attitude live together in peace.

As I’ve often said, Canada is not perfect: we have not always been so inclusive and tolerant. (Some would say we were taking a step back rather than forward in that regard before the recent election). Our country is a work in progress; but it works.

If Canada is indeed the “best country” in the world, as many have proudly said, then surely that spirit of inclusiveness and the national community it is in the process of building is part of the reason why.

The welcoming of 25,000 refugees to Canada is indeed doable, but only if Canadians embrace that spirit one way or another: that may be by getting involved in a local community group organization, or by simply making refugees feel sincerely welcome when they arrive, as my friend did.

Originally published in The Sun Times in November, 2015.

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