THE BLOG

Let's Close the Gap Between Canadians and Refugees

07/16/2015 12:43 EDT | Updated 07/16/2016 05:59 EDT
JOSEPH EID via Getty Images
A young Syrian refugee girl looks out from her shelter at an informal refugee camp in the area of Zahrani, south of the Lebanese capital Beirut, on July 9, 2015. More than four million Syrians have fled their country's civil war, the United Nations said, with many now despairing that they will ever return to their conflict-wracked homeland. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Samer tended the barbeque while his wife, Nisreen, relaxed in a lawnchair and their 9-year-old son, Mohammed, kicked a ball around with his cousins. An idyllic family get-together no different than any you might find across Canada on a warm spring day.

Until that evening, when the sky filled with helicopters and the streets with tanks.

That was the scene in Dara'a, Syria, in March, 2011--the opening of Syria's bloody civil war. Four years later, the family's happy life is lost. Nisreen, Samer and Mohammed have joined the miserable ranks of the world's 60 million refugees.

Canadians must look at Nisreen and Samer and see that their family is no different from our families. And it is only by an accident of birth that their tragedy is not ours. Perhaps then Canadians might rediscover the will to help address the global refugee crisis.

Nisreen and Samer told their story to humanitarian workers from the international organization CARE, who shared it with us. The pair met during university in Damascus and immediately fell in love. They married and after university Nisreen became an English teacher while Samer got a job with the local electrical utility in Dara'a. To afford life's little luxuries, Samer had a side job selling satellite dishes.

Although protests had been mounting throughout the spring of 2011, Nisreen says no one believed it would end in violence.

When the troops arrived, the family hid for days in their home. The power, phones, internet, all had been cut. When bombs began to fall, they fled. For weeks they moved from town to town, one step ahead of the fighting.

After a month, Samer risked returning home to retrieve precious family valuables. As he entered the house, artillery shells struck, demolishing the building and crushing his leg. Two friends pulled him to safety, but one was shot dead during the rescue. Doctors evacuated Samer to Jordan for treatment, leaving Nisreen and Mohammed behind. It would be five months before they, too, could escape Syria, and another three before the family was reunited in a Jordanian refugee camp.

Last year, a worried United Nations announced the global population of refugees had reached levels not seen since the Second World War. Hundreds have died in unsafe boats while crossing the Mediterranean from the Middle East and Africa to safety in Europe. The World Food Program has been forced to reduce its support for refugees because of insufficient funding.

Canada offered asylum to a mere 11,000 of the millions of displaced Syrians. Even then, an Ekos poll in March found that 46 per cent of Canadians still feel Canada is accepting too many immigrants and refugees. A poll last year found 42 per cent believe refugees should not be given the same level of health care as Canadian citizens.

We don't understand this hardening attitude. Refugees like Nisreen's family aren't criminals or freeloaders. We are just like them. But for the grace of God we could be them. It seems wildly unlikely the tragedy that befell them could never happen here, but Nisreen once said the exact same thing. "Here, we were relaxing one day, and the next it was a different world. We didn't expect or imagine this, ever."

CARE has launched a social media campaign called #NotThatDifferent to show Canadians how small the gap is between us and refugees. A powerful video has Canadians and Syrian refugees sharing their life stories--stories that are eerily alike.

Meanwhile, in the camp in Jordan, Nisreen and Samer sit and wait. Once Mohammed dreamed of becoming a doctor, now he just dreams of a normal life. "I want to go home. I want to have good things in my life again like television, games, and good food."

It is time for us to look at refugees and realize we are not looking through a window, but in a mirror. We must care about the face looking back at us, and then tell our governments we want them to act.

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