America is slamming its door on refugees. Will Canada open its wider?
MY ROUTE THROUGH THIS STORY is circuitous. It sprang from my growing unease about the refugee situation as news arrived almost daily through the early months of 2017—news about the US Administration’s plans of mass deportations, a de facto Muslim ban, and stories of desperate people risking frostbite or worse to escape the US and claim asylum in Canada. Along my meandering path, I interviewed a law professor, immigration workers, private sponsors, and a refugee and his daughter. But any meandering of mine is simply trivial compared to the stories of the refugees themselves.
Suliman Dawood and his family—wife Eman, son Fidel and daughters Samah and Salina—hail from Iraq, near Baghdad, though Dawood himself was born in Palestine; he is a refugee twice over. A university graduate, Dawood had taught history, and then, for 25 years, ran a small furniture-manufacturing business. But when more and more civilians in Iraq started losing their lives in 2005, he began making plans to get his family to safety.
Dawood tells me, “It was no longer safe for us.” The last straw was when seven of their good friends and neighbours were killed by a bomb while walking nearby streets: two adult sisters and their five children. His daughter Samah, now age 20, tells me a bit more about the fateful decision: “If Dad had stayed, they would have killed him.” Besides being Sunni, Dawood, as a Palestinian, had another strike against him. He had to walk away from his business.
In 2006, they made their way to Aleppo in Syria, another dangerous, war-torn place, staying for two years. Dawood says the children became traumatized, developing phobias to any loud noise. He was especially concerned for Fidel who has a disability. “He had no chance in Iraq or Syria” where there are no schools for those with disabilities. As a family, they decided to head to a refugee camp in the hope of a better life elsewhere. They ended up living in Al-Hawl refugee camp in the desert on the border of Iraq and Syria for over two years.
In the refugee camp, run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the family made it clear to authorities it was willing to go to any country that would take the whole family. They were thrilled when Canadian Embassy officials told them Canada would accept them. They were sponsored by the United Church and the Islamic Association, arriving in Canada five-and-a-half years ago.
In 2016, Suliman and Eman Dawood became proud Canadian citizens. The family lives in a modest townhouse in Fernwood. He works for Chix Poultry and has only good things to say about his employer, Victoria, and Canada. His son Fidel attends Garth Homer daily; his daughter Samah attends Camosun and is looking forward to earning a diploma in Community, Family & Child Studies. Dawood’s older daughter has settled with her husband in Alberta; Suliman and Eman are now proud grandparents.
“In Canada, one can keep going forward,” says Dawood. In parts of the world he is familiar with, he explains, “you can move forward a bit only to go back to zero.” Samah explains that the rules everyone follows here are good and applied equally—unlike in parts of the Middle East. Dawood says, “Everybody is equal…all people have the same opportunity if you want to work, study, or to get medical care.”
ONE ASPECT OF LIFE that isn’t so rosy for refugees such as Dawood is that family members end up scattered around the globe. Eman’s family is in Cypress and Sweden; Dawood’s many siblings live in Australia, Texas, Turkey, Tunisia, Norway, and Iraq. Fortunately, none of his siblings are living in refugee camps.
But his cousin Mohammed’s family is.
They have been stuck in a refugee camp in Lebanon for three years. The Dawoods last saw their cousins years ago in Damascus. One of the young cousins subsequently got arrested after taking part in a political protest against the Syrian government. Subjected to torture, after six months in prison he died. “His mom, she cried until now,” says Dawood.
Shortly after that tragedy, in 2013, almost all of Mohammed’s extended family in Syria was killed during a chemical weapon attack in Damascus. Fearing for their safety, the family fled, eventually arriving at a UN refugee camp in Lebanon.
That was three years ago. Since then the father Mohammed managed to make the lengthy journey to Denmark with one daughter. Though he had hoped to be able to bring his whole family there, there is no guarantee that even he will be allowed to stay (he entered illegally, and his asylum claim is in limbo). One thing that is clear: Denmark is no longer accepting any young adult males, so even if Mohammed is accepted, the two older sons, Rasheed, 26, and Tareq, 19, need to find a different place to call home. (I am using only first names for security reasons.)
Mohammed was understandably relieved when Dawood agreed to help the two older boys come to Canada.
Meanwhile, the young men, their mother and 11-year-old brother Omar continue to reside in Chabriha, the refugee camp, in a tiny apartment roughly the size of Dawood’s kitchen. While safe, the camp’s refugees tend to be resented by the local community and there are few opportunities for work, though Rasheed has found a part-time job. The hope is that the mom and Omar can join the father sometime in Denmark, after she’s assured her older sons will be given refuge in Canada.
As Suliman, Samah and I sit contemplating the choices and compromises this family must make, and the uncertainties they face, we all shake out heads in sadness.
Dawood has informed the boys that “we don’t know how long it will take…it all depends on our government.” He tells me Rasheed says it’s ok, as long as things are moving forward.
NATALIE HUNT, A YOUNG VICTORIA MOM who got to know Fidel Dawood and then the whole family when she was working at the Garth Homer Centre, decided to help bring Rasheed and Tareq to Canada. Last summer she, Dawood, and a few other friends formed the Salish Sea Refugee Sponsorship Group, to sponsor the young men in partnership with the Inter-Cultural Association (ICA). As Carla Funk, one of Hunt’s neighbours and a member of the group puts it, “when you learn the histories of these families, it’s like peeling back the onion. There are so many stories of loss, and such epic journeys.”
Hunt, whose current job is at the Access Justice Centre, shows me the thick raft of paperwork she’s just finished working on—for the third time. Despite the fact that the young men are approved through the UN Commission on Refugees and have been vetted by the Canadian government, there is still a lot of vetting going on it seems. Says Hunt, “You have to present a coherent story from A to Z; it’s really hard to do!” This means accounting for their individual whereabouts and activities for their whole lives, with no gaps, which can be particularly difficult to do for people fleeing dangerous regimes. And, she noted, because paperwork in the past was sometimes filled out inconsistently by officials, each of those inconsistencies—whether it be dates or name spelling—have to be reconciled.
“When we started the process, we were told it would take about six to eight months [to get the men here],” says Hunt. The group has now been informed it could take one to four years and are concerned it will likely be at the longer end of the spectrum because these are young adult males. While they are near the top of the pile of the local ICA-approved sponsorships, there are about 16,000 ahead of them Canada-wide.
Meanwhile, members of the sponsorship group keep in touch with Rasheed and Tareq almost daily by Whatsapp or Skype. “It’s important for them to know we care,” says Hunt, “especially now that it might take longer.” The women admit they haven’t had the heart to tell them the latest time estimates.
While the group has raised $17,000 towards the $40,000 required to help them through their first year here, they are also raising a smaller contingency fund to help right now, mostly with the boys’ English lessons and dental work (much lower in Lebanon than here). They sell the book Stepping Stones for $20 (pocketing $10) and they have a facebook page (search “Salish Sea Refugee”) which will be announcing upcoming fundraisers. They’ve even got potential jobs lined up.
“We also have to be realistic,” says Hunt sadly. “They may never be able to come.” Says Funk, “That’s why we’re developing a solid plan B. If they can both hone their English skills and get work experience, and get a certificate of some kind for the younger brother, those are marketable, and their resilience in the world, no matter where they end up, will be improved.”
If the boys don’t manage to be accepted into Canada, the tax-deductible funds raised under the ICA umbrella will go to another refugee family who is.
SINCE NOVEMBER 2015 when the recent surge of refugees from Syria started to arrive in Canada, Greater Victoria has welcomed 415 refugees (170 of which are at least partially privately sponsored)—not a lot, but more than usual. Sabine Lehr, manager of private sponsorship of refugees with the Inter-Cultural Association, like others on the frontlines of refugee resettlement, understands how important it is to help bring refugees’ families together. She says, “Almost every person recently resettled to Victoria has other family members that had to flee their home countries and who are now living in neighbouring countries in difficult circumstances.”
For that reason, the Canadian Council on Refugees is calling for Express Entry Family Reunification, noting that though refugees in Canada can apply to bring their immediate family members to Canada, “sometimes they are forced to wait years to be reunited with their spouses and children overseas, who can be in situations of danger and persecution.” The delays caused by bureaucratic barriers obviously take a particularly high toll on children.
The Council, a national non-profit umbrella organization, also complains that Canada’s plans for 2017 are disappointing. For one thing, Canada is taking only 7500 Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs)—which is less than the average of years from 2000 through 2015. GARS are financially assisted by the government for one year. Canada will accept 16,000 Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSR) in 2017—but there’s already an estimated 45,000 PSR applications in process with 6400 of those now waiting for more than three years. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has said that their goal is to eliminate the backlog of private sponsorship applications by 2019 and reduce wait times for new applications to about 12 months.
Unfortunately, as the Council points out, the 2017 targets “[cannot] accommodate applications submitted to respond to the many requests for family reunification for recently arrived Syrians and other refugees.” It predicts that it will be 2018 or later before recently-applied-for refugee family members (such as Rasheed and Tareq) will be able to come to Canada.
This is despite family reunification being a stated goal of Canada’s federal government. The reality on the ground is often heart-breaking. Even in the “economic immigrant” category, I know of many women working as caregivers here who have waited for 4, 5, or 6 years after they spend 2 years becoming Permanent Residents to be allowed to have their children and spouse join them here.
Donald Galloway, a UVic law professor who specializes in immigration, warns me to be wary of the government’s numbers on family reunification. While the official stats, he says, show 65,000 “family class members” admitted last year, about 45,000 of them are spouses or common law partners sponsored by permanent residents or citizens here. “It operates primarily to allow citizens to select their spouse from the global pool and be able to bring that partner to Canada.” This is very different than the type of reunification needed by many refugees, torn apart as they flee conflict zones.
Recently the Council on Refugees launched the “Wish You Were Here” campaign, along with issuing a manifesto on family reunification, now signed by over 80 Canadian organizations. In part, the manifesto states: “We deplore any immigration or refugee system that is indifferent to the hardships caused by separation of families, and we call for the removal of any and all barriers to family reunification. We underline the costs of family separation, most importantly for those kept separate, but also for society at large which is also the loser when families are kept apart by the immigration system.”
Says Galloway, “We encourage people to apply but the government is not providing adequate infrastructure to consider their applications in a timely manner.” In both Canada and the US, says Galloway, the vetting of refugees is “incredibly rigorous,” involving a two-year detailed examination of identity, work history, relatives, connections, and medicals for all family members. Our aspirations, he continues, clash with the bureaucracy’s ability to implement a way to realize them in a humanitarian and fair manner. The result, he says, is “huge backlogs and family rupture rather than reunification. We put people through horrific trials.”
ALL THIS IS PLAYING OUT against the backdrop of a US Administration apparently bent on criminalizing immigrants and refugees. Dawood says his brothers in Texas have asked him if they should come here. As we chat over tea, Dawood asks me what I think about their well-being in the US. Hmmm. We both try to reassure each other that, since they were accepted by the US as refugees years ago, they must be safe, mustn’t they?
Professor Galloway is not surprised that there is panic in the US, resulting in frightened people risking life and limb to cross over the US-Canada border.
Because of the dangers to these already traumatized people both in their homelands and now in the US, 240 Canadian law professors, Galloway among them, have urged Canada’s federal government to “immediately suspend directing back refugee claimants at the Canada-US border under the Safe Third County Agreement.”
This Agreement, explains Galloway, applies only at official ports of entry. In effect, it encourages people to sneak into Canada (potentially endangering their lives) in order to claim asylum.
Options to suspend temporarily all or part of it are built into the Agreement in order, says Galloway, to “allow time to take stock of what’s going on. It also…allows each country to admit refugees from the other on a discretionary basis, and that discretion can be exercised on a case-by-case basis or…[by government directive] to border officials.”
Given the new US measures, and the chaos and panic there, Galloway and his fellow legal scholars feel a three-month suspension of the Safe Third County Agreement by Canada is the most rational response.
Harvard Law School also wrote to Prime Minister Trudeau in February, asking for suspension and citing a report the School compiled showing that the US was no longer safe for many refugees: “Based on erroneous assumptions about the criminality and extremist tendency of the immigrant population, President Trump’s Executive Orders represent a dramatic restriction of access to asylum and other immigration protections in the United States. They call for a new regime of large-scale detention, expanded expedited removal without due process, deputizing of state and local officials to detain individuals suspected of immigration violations, and aggressive criminal prosecution of unauthorized entry, a means by which many seek access to asylum protection, as recognized in Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.”
The Trudeau Government, however, has so far indicated it has no intention of suspending the Safe Third County Agreement.
Galloway predicts a legal challenge of the Agreement in the courts. He tells me that it won’t be the first. In 2008, the Canadian Council on Refugees went to court arguing that the situation then in the US was not safe. The judge agreed, says Galloway, “citing the US detention conditions, expedited removal, and the way the Americans interpret their international obligations.” That decision was ultimately successfully appealed on procedural grounds, which have since changed (it was ruled inappropriate for the courts to hear the case because no particular individual was involved). “As the Harvard report indicates, things are even more serious than they were in 2008,” says Galloway, and the question of safety could easily be addressed again.
A more welcoming stance to US asylum seekers might well burnish Canada’s already good reputation on the global refugee front. Our acceptance of 25,000 Syrian refugees last year—and allowing them to become Permanent Residents on arrival—was, says Galloway, a beacon of light as other countries push refugees away or refuse to give them any status. He also praises Canada’s rather innovative approach of allowing private sponsorship of refugees, something the UNCHR has recommended other countries emulate.
Certainly many Canadian citizens have become more aware and empathetic, understanding both the need for greater humanitarian assistance, and the enrichment that flows to Canadian society from opening our doors to more refugees like Suliman Dawood and his family.
Up against the 65 million people who are currently displaced world-wide by conflict and persecution, however, we need all the innovative measures and good will we can dream up.
Leslie Campbell is the founder and editor of Focus. Her grandparents all immigrated to Canada from Scotland.
Edited by Leslie Campbell