‘Welcoming Refugees’ Forum Unites Different Perspectives to Address Refugee Resettlement in Canada

Posted by Seher Asaf & filed under Current Affairs.

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Photo Credit: CBC

During the 2015 Federal Election Campaign, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party promised to re-settle 25,000 refugees from Syria by the end of the year. Recent announcements by the newly appointed Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, John McCallum indicates that Trudeau will uphold this promise. How does the Canadian Government plan to ensure positive settlement outcomes for 25,000 refugees?

This was one of the questions explored at the ‘Welcoming Refugees: Connecting Research, Learning and Practice’ forum held at UBC’s Liu Institute on Tuesday. Refugees, professors, directors of re-settlement organizations, students, lawyers, social workers were all brought to the panel to spread their voices on one of the world’s worst refugee crises in decades. There was a sense of urgency as speakers alluded to a need for more preparation and training aimed at resettlement programs. Early indicators suggest that approximately 2/3 of Syrian refugees may require trauma support, and the demand for housing, medical services, volunteer mentors and services in Arabic and Kurdish will increase. Despite concerns, speakers are optimistic about the mounting encouragement and efforts made by civil society in welcoming refugees to Canada.

The spotlight was shed on Immigrant Services Society of B.C’s new ‘Welcome House’ – a 58,000 square foot facility with 130 beds set to open next year and serve as a centre for refugees and immigrants upon arrival. This welcome hub is heralded as “first of its kind” due to its unique combination of transitional temporary housing and basic services brought together under one roof. On-site services include health care, trauma support, a youth drop-in space, a food bank, classrooms, a law clinic and many other services. The building is open to a collection of refugees including refugee claimants, privately sponsored refugees as well as government assisted refugees.

welcome house
Photo Credit: issbc.org

Chris Friesen, the Director of Immigrant Services Society of B.C expressed his goals to re-define a new international model for integrating refugees.

“We have had tremendous interest around the world looking into what we’re doing and how it could translate into a franchised model to some of the challenges that are confronted by European states as well as our colleagues to the south of us”, said Friesen.

Diverse Pathways to Reach Canada

Refugees often pursue different pathways to escape persecution and embark on harrowing journeys to reach Canada. Understanding the different paths undertaken by refugees that seek protection in Canada was the second panel discussion at the forum. Speakers highlighted the unique set of challenges faced by different types of refugees arriving in Canada.

Lawyer and former regional legal officer with the Untied Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR), Lesley Stalker, described the challenges confronted by refugee claimants – individuals who arrive in Canada and file an inland refugee claim with the Canada Border Services Agency or Citizenship and Immigration Canada. These refugees are overloaded with one of the most distressing tasks: they have to prove their fear of persecution was “legitimate” and the lack of rights-protection in their home country, immediately after arrival. This requires navigating though a complex, bureaucratic refugee determination process.

Stalker described a conundrum in refugee law – those who are most in need of protection are often the least able to articulate that need due to effects of trauma. This can greatly hinder their chances of successfully proving their need for asylum.

“You would like to think that the refugee board would understand that when people have gone through horrific experiences, they are often not able to tell their stories in a coherent way. That’s not the case, in fact when I read a decision, If I see the memo starting off with ‘I found the members to be vague, inconsistent and evasive – that’s a flag to me that these members were traumatized”, said Stalker.

Around 16,000 refugee claims are made in Canada each year and out of these, 61% of them are met by the Canadian government.

Kuol Deng Biong, a refugee from South Sudan also shared his journey to Canada. Kuol Deng Biong was sponsored by World University Services of Canada’s Student Refugee Program – an initiative funded by universities and student-led committees to sponsor gifted students so that they can attend Canada’s post-secondary institutions.

“I ran out of the country in 1999 to Kenya and was in a refugee camp for the rest of the year”, said Biong.

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Biong is now a UBC Bachelor of Science student with a combined major in Statistics and Economics. He also serves as the President of UBC’s WUSC Chapter. They are planning on sponsoring a Syrian Refugee to study in Canada.

Many refugees arriving in Canada are Government Assisted Refugees or Privately Sponsored Refugees. These are refugees selected from abroad to be resettled in Canada. Individual sponsors agree to pay for the basic expenses of Privately Sponsored Refugees for up to one year once they arrive. For Government Assisted Refugees, their initial resettlement is entirely supported by the Government of Canada or Quebec.

In the past, Immigrant Services Society of B.C has worked with a total of 800 Government Assisted Refugees per year. After escaping a world of uncertainty and terror, all GRAs resettling in British Columbia are ushered into ISS’s current welcome house immediately upon arrival. They spend two weeks at this temporary housing hub.

“Emotionally there is a lot going on, they are meeting family they have not seen for years. It’s a lot of things happening, they coming to a brand new country”, said Caroline Dailly, the Manager of Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) at ISS of BC.

Within the two weeks they spend at the welcome hub, refugees are assisted with learning a slew of things essential to successfully resettling in Canada- banking, using debit cards, how to walk across an intersection, currency in Canada, and one of the most challenges tasks of all: finding safe and affordable housing.

Sharing Lived Experiences

Personal experiences of refugees in Canada were shared in the forum to heighten understanding of refugee newcomers in Canada.

Refugees arriving from Iran and Uganda shared their stories on why they were forced to flee their homes and the onslaught of new challenges they encountered while learning about life in Canada – a new country with a different language, unfamiliar faces and a new environment.

“When we arrive, we have nothing” said Golsa Golestaneh who was born in Iran and came to Vancouver as a Government Assisted Refugee in November 2014.

“As a girl, before anything, before the political background that my family has, I faced a lot of difficulties in my own country Iran so it was necessary for us to leave my country,” said Golestaneh.

Golestaneh and her family spent two years in Turkey prior to arriving in Canada. Life in turkey was tough for Golestaneh and her family.

“When I remember I start to shake because it was awful. We used to work and not get paid. My dad, my brother and myself we did the jobs we would never do,” said Golestaneh.

Golestaneh’s situation improved slightly after she arrived in Canada along with her family. She immersed herself in producing documentaries, partaking in interviews as well as protests in order to improve the conditions of refugees in Canada. She is currently a student in Grade 12 and has aspirations to become a lawyer, a filmmaker, a photojournalist and a social activist.

She ended her 5-minute talk by asserting a need to tackle the root cause of the refugee crisis.

“I think we need to do something so that no-one has to leave their hometown. Not only should we improve their situation in Canada, we should do something so that no one has to leave their hometown in the first-place”, said Golestaneh.

Malcolm Attia also shared his searing story that prompted him to flee Uganda at the age of 18 and arrive in Vancouver as a Government Assisted Refugee. In Uganda, as a young Gay man, he faced persecution and violence, including threats from his own aunt and uncle.

“I was conceived as a devil for my sexual orientation. I hid in the corner for almost 5 years because I knew who I was at the age of 13,” said Attia.

Before arriving in Vancouver, Attia spent two years in a refugee camp in Kenya where he encountered people from different backgrounds. Here, he witnessed a friend being burned on the streets.

“When we’re young we all have dreams, but then its really sad when you turn 18 and have to leave your country and your dreams get shattered and they are shoved in a corner and you don’t think they will ever be redeemed. But finally god answered my prayers and I came to Canada. I was ridiculously happy”, said Attia.

Attia is now studying acting in Vancouver and hopes to portray different characters and become a famous actor.

The Global Context

Syria was a country of 22 million people five years ago. Since then, almost half of the population has been displaced. Around 7 million Syrians have been internally displaced. Another 4 million have found temporary refuge in an adjacent or proximate country.

Trudeau and the liberal party’s promise to take in 25,000 refugees is being characterized as “Bold” and “Ambitious”. But is it really?

Professor Dan Hiebert from UBC’s Geography Department asked the following question during a panel about diverse responses to the refugee crisis: “This is a really big number for Canada but is it a big number for the world?” to which he responded, “The answer is no. It’s actually a very modest number for the world.”

Professor Hiebert emphasized the need to understand how other countries have responded to the refugee crisis as well as examining Canada’s response.

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Photo Credit: Economist.com

“Only around 1 million of those 11 million displaced persons have found their way to Europe and yet that’s all we talk about in our Canadian Media these days, the European scene. We’re only talking about 10% of the issue when we’re talking about these things,” Said Professor Hiebert.

Turkey has taken in 2.5 million refugees while Lebanon has added 2 million refugees. By doing so, the country has added a quarter to its population, according to Professor Hiebert.

European countries have also taken in a number of refugees. Sweden, a society with approximately 9 million people, will receive 200,000 refugees over the next couple of years. Germany has made plans to settle about 1.5 million Syrian refugees over a 3 to 5 year period.

The arrival of refugees has become a defining issue and one that has ignited deep internal fissures within European countries. While many people have become deeply caring about asylum seekers arriving at their borders, there is also a growing trend of xenophobic attacks targeting refugees. Refugees in Germany and Sweden face at least one kind of violent behavior everyday.

Professor Hiebert suggested that the prominence of the niqab issue during the 2015 Federal Election gave us a glimpse of the simmering islamaphobia that exists among Canadians, similar to the anti-islamic sentiment in Sweden and Germany. The issue of whether a woman can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath became a galvanizing issue during the federal elections and saw people on both sides of the debate.

“There will be lots of people who pour their energy and resources but there will be lots of people who will become very bothered by this issue and may even turn to extremism,” said Professor Hiebert.

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