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The Year Canada Woke Up to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Justin Trudeau’s herculean plan to welcome in Syrian refugees — despite pushback following the Paris attacks by people worried terrorists would hide among them — has already shifted the perception of Canada on this score.

by Rachel Browne
Dec 30 2015, 6:50pm

Photo of Justin Trudeau via his Facebook page

One after the other, Christine Youssef's five young cousins bounced up the stairs into her living room on a recent afternoon in Toronto. They crashed to the floor in front of the Christmas tree and began building a tower out of lego.

A year ago, they had to flee their homes in Syria as it became consumed by war. Now, they inhabit a tiny bungalow, where stacks of mattresses line the walls of the hallway until it's time to sleep. Youssef will lay them all over the house for the children and 10 more of her relatives who arrived in Canada the week before on a flight from Lebanon.

"It seems like mayhem with so many of us here, but everyone will have a place to sleep, and no one really minds," Youssef said looking over at them. "They've experienced horrible things you and I could never imagine."

Youssef, 26, quit her job last year so she could dedicate her time filling out piles of paperwork to sponsor 43 members of her family in Syria to come to Canada as refugees. She and her mother took out a second mortgage, and got other loans to raise the $250,000 needed to do so.

Fifteen of them arrived earlier this month, something Youssef and her mother weren't expecting to happen this quickly.

"All my cousins used to greet me at the airport in Damascus every summer when I'd go there to celebrate my birthday. They used to make me feel at home," Youssef said. "And now, I'm doing the same thing for them, but this time, I'm saving their lives."

Over the last few weeks, Canada's immigration department has been flying Syrian refugees into Canada en masse from Jordan and Lebanon as part of the new Liberal government's pledge to bring in 25,000 by next February — nearly 10 times more than the number of Syrians resettled in Canada under the previous Conservative government.

Now, crowds have held up banners, broken out into song, and sometimes brought gifts to greet the newcomers at airports across the country. New scenes of total strangers eager to help make things a little easier for those fleeing war and starting over.

"You are home," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Syrians who landed in Toronto on December 10 on the first government flight as he handed out winter coats. "We get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinary difficult situations."

Nearly 2,000 more Syrians have been ushered in since then. Last week, the immigration minister announced he would like to bring in as many as 50,000 by the end of 2016.

To meet its self-imposed deadline, the government has made the file a top priority, ramping up its resettlement processes by shuffling hundreds of employees from across federal departments, fast-tracking applications, and flying hundreds of refugees in on chartered and government flights.

In just two months since he took office, Trudeau's herculean plan — despite ongoing setbacks and pushback following the Paris attacks by people worried terrorists would come in with the refugees — has already shifted the perception of Canada from a country reluctant to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis to one that's praised as an inspiration.

But it took years, a photo of a dead toddler, and a tight federal election race to get here. And many on the frontlines of refugee resettlement worry that it might be too much too soon.

Related: Canada Probably Won't Bring in All the Syrians It Wanted to This Year

Though the bloody conflict in Syria is well-known, the full gravity of the refugee crisis did not seem to seize Canadians until September 2, when the image of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, went viral. The three-year-old drowned along with his older brother and mother after the dinghy meant to carry them a few kilometers from Turkey to Greece capsized. Alan's his father, Abdullah, was the only survivor.

The world turned its gaze to Canada when it was revealed that Abdullah's sister Tima — Alan's aunt — resided in British Columbia, and that her recent bid to bring her extended family over to the country had failed. (It later emerged that her application was incomplete.) In the midst of a prolonged federal election, the ruling Conservative Party came under fire for not accepting more refugees from the region. Roughly 2,500 Syrians had been given refuge in the four years since the outbreak of the country's civil war. That paled in comparison to countries such as Sweden, which had accepted roughly 40,000 in that time period, and Germany, which is set to accept hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers.

"I want to tell the rest of the world at this point, to step in and help the refugees," Tima pleaded at her home in Coquitlam looking at photos of her nephews. Abdullah told reporters that the prime minister Stephen Harper himself was to blame for their plight. He has since declined the chance to resettle in Canada.

The crisis suddenly became a top election issue, and Canadians of all stripes, from premiers to rabbis, vowed to open their doors to refugees, even if the federal government wouldn't. Harper's Conservative attempted to quell public outcry by increasing their earlier policy to admit 10,000 by September 2016, while urging Canadians to focus on fighting the Islamic State, which he called the true "root cause" of the crisis.

For many, the Conservatives' response seemed, at best, designed to offset the damage done to their campaign in the wake of the Kurdi saga. The government's cuts to healthcare for many refugees, tight restrictions on who could apply for status, and a scandal over alleged interference by the prime minister on certain refugee files, were all the more palpable. In the end, it was the Liberals — who promised the biggest and swiftest rescue operation for Syrian refugees — that came out from third place with a sweeping majority.

The last time Canada undertook such a massive role in refugee resettlement was during the so-called boat people crisis in 1979, when more than 60,000 people were fleeing war in southeast Asia. That year, Canada created its private sponsorship program, the only one of its kind that allows individuals and community groups to sponsor refugees. Private sponsorship differs from government sponsorship in that, instead of receiving financial support from the government, individuals raise money and support refugees for at least the first year after they arrive. This includes helping them find housing, schooling, jobs, and language classes.

Since it started, more than 220,000 refugees from around the world have settled in Canada through this program. Many of the 25,000 Syrians expected to arrive by February will be privately sponsored — as opposed to the Liberals' original campaign promise that they would all be government-assisted.

More than 370 groups, many of which have never been involved with refugee issues, signed up to sponsor families though Lifeline Syria, a group in Toronto working to bring in more than 1,000 Syrians over the next two years. Elsewhere, religious and civil groups raising money to sponsor refugees have benefited from overwhelming, and unexpected generosity. One Montreal church has received interest from potential sponsors faster than it can identify refugees to sponsor.

"It helps to have a government that's being open about how they're undertaking refugee resettlement and showing that they don't consider these people to be dangerous, and that they think these people will positively contribute to our society," said Alexandra Kotyk, Lifeline Syria's project manager. "We're proving again here that average citizens are more than willing to help."

Kotyk added that a number of Americans have also reached out to ask how they can get involved with sponsorship. Obama has pledged to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, but he faces intense opposition from the public, most of whom oppose resettling any Syrians, and from the state governors who say they won't take any in. (According to a recent poll, more than half of Canadians support the Liberals' plan to bring in 25,000 Syrians.)

Though the discord in the US further adds to Canadians' renewed sense of pride over its response to the refugee crisis, critics have attempted to deflate any smugness. They point out that many of the refugees welcomed by the Liberal government were in the pipeline under the previous government, long before the election, and that its private sponsors who continue to take on much of the burden.

Others involved in refugee resettlement worry about the unintended consequences of Trudeau's plan.

Related: 'Light at the End of the Tunnel:' Alan Kurdi's Family Has Arrived in Canada

Shortly after the election, settlement workers pleaded with the new government to scale back its pledge, saying that they were already working beyond capacity. Flooding the system might make it more difficult for refugees to properly integrate into society.

Gail Millard, refugee coordinator for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, which has sponsored dozens of refugees since the 1980s, is worried that those involved in sponsorship might not be able to handle the huge influx of newcomers, and that Syrians are being prioritized to the detriment of other refugees who have been waiting on Canada for years.

"This is a bittersweet moment," she said. "I'm saying yes, bring them all. But it is overburdening all of the programs. It's putting behind all of the other refugees. It's putting them on the backburner."

"If we can bring in tens of thousands of Syrians in such a short time, and help them integrate properly, and do the exact same for all the other refugees, it will be nothing short of a miracle. And that will be the real test of this new era."

Jake Bleiberg contributed reporting to this article. 

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne 

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