A word loaded with power and imagery: terror and burnt-out buildings, explosions and cowering children.
After the 2015 federal election, the incoming govern- ment pledged to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year-end, a commitment that was meant to bring hope to those fleeing war-torn areas and to signal a kinder, softer Canada.
Maryam has been a refugee twice. Yet she came to Canada at 19 after being sponsored by her husband who had moved here on a student visa. It was within her own country that she was a refugee.*
“Twice we lost everything. We walked out the door with only our clothes.”
Her mostly Kurdish town in Iran was bombed by the state, forcing her family and thousands of others to ee to the mountains. Above them, helicopters circled, continuing to destroy the city.
She was five years old.
“I remember my mother’s eyes.”
Even at that age, Maryam could see that her mother was concerned about her children and, at the same time, she was terrified. The images are still vivid: her pregnant aunt stopping to vomit, her mother tearing strips of fabric from the cotton under her dress to make a diaper for Maryam’s baby sister. Her uncle was killed and she remembers seeing his lifeless body.
She remembers feeling helpless and hopeless.
The second time her family became refugees, they left the town for good and because her mother is half-Turkish, they settled in a culturally Turkish city in Iran. Her parents enrolled her in elementary school and she remembers being angry at her fellow grade one students – were their parents responsible for killing her uncle? She’s shocked to imagine herself so tiny and filled with hate.
Hearing the horror of the war unfolding in Syria and the resulting mass of refugees triggers these memories. Maryam says she is happy for those who come to Canada, but what about the others? Many of those who come are well-educated, middle class. Maryam believes that those who are most desperate are being left behind.
Maryam describes herself and her family as privileged – her father was a university professor and her family was well-off. Growing up, it was safer for Maryam to not identify herself as what she was: Kurdish. Her father constantly told her to “keep her mouth shut” in order to stay safe. He was shuttled back and forth to his job at the university, constantly monitored to ensure he wasn’t spreading political messages to his students.
Maryam’s husband was well-off, and when she first moved to Canada she didn’t have a problem finding housing – one of the most severe issues facing the Syrians moving to the Lower Mainland – but she says she “felt not complete”.
What would her life have been like if she stayed in Iran? Would she have been safe? Maryam says Kurdish people in Iran are safe as long as they don’t engage in political activity. She desperately wanted to study social work, but her father insisted she study medicine which she did for one year, but found it dry without any personal interaction. Fourteen years after moving to Canada, Maryam found herself working with marginalized women and children, quite by accident. She recites a quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist: “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
In her work, Maryam has helped many refugee families. She says a question they often ask is “why did Canada bring me here if they can’t help me?” There is no answer she can give, except to tell her own experience moving to this country:
“Canada gave me identity, I can say who I am here. Before 19, I had to hide who I truly am.”
When people in New Westminster heard about the number of refugees who would be moving to the community, there was an incredible outpour of support. People truly wanted to help and welcome the newcomers. Months later, many are left wondering where the government-assisted refugees are. The simple answer? They never came.
Quietly, the number of government-assisted refugees (GARs) decreased as the number of privately-sponsored refugees increased, a fact widely underreported in mainstream media. In New West, groups of families and faith organizations came together to pool funds to bring Syrian families and individuals to Canada. These shows of generosity highlighted our strong community, however these numbers should have been in addition to the number the federal government was sponsoring. On February 27, 2016, the Government of Canada announced they had met their goal of bringing 25,000 Syrians to Canada. Despite the enormous challenges facing them, many privately- sponsored refugees often have a network to fall back on, however many of those who arrived as GARs ended up crowded into hotels because of the difficulty finding appropriate housing for large families within a limited budget.
In the rush to bring Syrian refugees to Canada, many secondary services were forgotten.
“We must have compassion and we must plan properly,” Maryam says. Her job is to help find housing for people with low income, of which there is already a shortage. She points out that people are complex. They’re not just refugees. They may have additional needs such as culturally-appropriate supports and services to deal with the trauma they have experienced. Like many of those who already live in New Westminster, they may have mental or physical health issues and community supports and services are already stretched thin.
Bringing in refugees from war-torn countries has exacerbated an ‘us-or-them’ mentality. However, inviting refugees into our communities is also an opportunity to open a discussion about poverty, income assistance rates, and the lack of affordable housing. It provides an opportunity to learn from those who have experienced a different upbringing and culture, and to learn that, at our core, we are mostly the same…
We all want happiness, opportunity, and to feel safe and free.
Maryam’s brother is currently in Turkey and has been waiting for years to come to Canada as a refugee. If he returns to Iran, she believes he will be killed for his political activity. His application is indefinitely on hold because of the focus on Syrian refugees. For the moment he’s safe, however if he acknowledges that he’s Kurdish he won’t be. He must hide who he is in order to survive.
Offering help to those in need, no matter the circumstances, is both dif cult and rewarding. Are there clear-cut answers to the question of whether Syrian refugees should be privately sponsored or come as GARs, whether we should rst provide services to those who need them already in the community before looking outwards, and whether we can determine who is most in need?
Maryam easily summarizes the only thing we know for sure: “It is complicated.”
*Editor’s Note: the technical term for Maryam’s family is internally displaced persons (IDP)– someone who is forced from their home but remains within their own country. IDP seems sterile and does not hold the same legal weight as the term refugee. IDPs do not fall into any legal category of refugee.