Americans Take Notes On Canada's Syrian Refugee Response

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WASHINGTON — A Canadian politician offered a positive view of the country's experiences with Syrian refugees during a briefing session Monday in Washington, where the current political climate is far less welcoming of migrants.

Arif Virani shared some observations about his country's experience during a briefing session on Capitol Hill attended by a number of U.S. congressional staffers and moderated by the Washington bureau chief of The Economist magazine.

Virani, the parliamentary secretary for immigration, was asked about a recent cover story in the New York Times about Canada headlined, "Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome." The moderator, David Rennie, asked, "Why is Canada so different?"

Virani responded by referring to different factors — including the role of Canadian media in sharing positive stories about the refugees, like those who helped with fundraising in the aftermath of the Alberta forest fires.

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Justin Trudeau shakes hands with a Syrian refugee during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, July 1. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

He cited the role of Canada's private sponsorship program, which other countries have been studying as a possible model in the midst of a historic migration crisis. Virani said private citizens hoping to sponsor refugees have pressured the Canadian government to open the door, not shut it.

"The response has been extremely overwhelming," he told a panel hosted by the U.S. National Immigration Forum.

"To the point where it might seem a bit odd for people in this room, or in this country, but the criticism we get in Canada about refugee resettlement is, 'Why is it so slow? Why is it not faster? Why are people not coming sooner? Why have you stopped bringing in charter planes?'

"So there are challenges — but the challenges are very different."

Canada and the U.S. have both received a mere fraction of the number of migrants spilling into the Middle East and Europe. However, the political reaction in the neighbouring North American countries has been a study in contrasts.

"The response has been extremely overwhelming."

Canada has welcomed 28,000 refugees so far and expects almost 45,000 by year's end, Virani explained; in the U.S., the Obama administration has been dealing with political blowback over its plan to bring in 10,000.

A recent Nanos survey suggested 68 per cent of Canadians supported or somewhat supported the government's refugee policy. Yet different surveys indicate Canadians were concerned about specifics of the plan — like its speed, its security precautions, and the resources available within communities.

That issue of resources was illustrated in documents reviewed by The Canadian Press, first obtained by conservative website The Rebel. It said the arrival of refugees caused various problems in a New Brunswick high school this year; staff complained about lacking access to translators, about classes being disrupted by linguistic and cultural differences, and about students being intimidated by older refugees.

Virani did not refer to those incidents.

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Arif Virani in the House of Commons, April 22. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

He did, however, urge policy-makers and media to tell success stories. He pointed as an example to his own history — Virani was born in Uganda, his family fled persecution under the dictator Idi Amin, and he later became a lawyer and MP. He also referred to Canada's minister for democratic reform, Maryam Monsef, who escaped Afghanistan on a donkey and whose story President Barack Obama mentioned in a speech.

He suggested Americans might not hear these stories as often as they used to: "Where has that Lee Iacocca rags-to-riches (Ellis) Island narrative gone?'' he said, referring to the son of Italian immigrants who as an auto executive helped launch the quintessential American car, the Ford Mustang.

Security a priority for Canada: Virani

He also discussed security concerns.

The issue was less prevalent on Monday's panel than it was a few months ago in a formal hearing in the U.S. Senate, where some border-state lawmakers pointed to the influx of refugees in Canada to argue for more jobs for customs guards in their states.

Virani stressed that security is a priority. That's why, he said, Canada conducted its refugee interviews abroad; gathered biometric and biographical information about potential candidates; and plugged the information into databases and shared it with the U.S.

"Because we are not about jeopardizing the security of our own citizens — or jeopardizing the security of our closest, most reliable ally. We take that very seriously," he said.

Indeed, some Canadian diplomats in the U.S. stress that security is more serious to them than any other issue; Three-quarters of Canada's exports go next door, and the impact of border-tightening after the 9-11 attacks left a long-lasting negative effect.

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