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Debbie Wolfe Headshot

What's To Be Done About The World's Refugees?

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"Would you care to fill out an application?"

My husband and I have a small apartment on the main floor of our home. We're currently in the process of showing it to prospective tenants eager to move in next month.

It's unbelievably hard to find a reasonably priced apartment in downtown Toronto. Our little space is clean, attractive, and safe. Almost everyone who sees the place wants to rent it. As a result, Dave and I normally receive about 20 applications.

Then comes the part that feels so unfair. We sit at the kitchen table, sifting through the papers describing people's lives. Making the case for their having a home here. We hold the power to choose who gets that home, and who keeps looking.

We meet quite a few "safe bets": clean, quiet, individuals with professional backgrounds and great references. Then there are those seeking refuge from life's storms. We often meet someone just separating from their spouse. There's usually a student working two or three jobs, just to make tuition. And often, a single mom with a little child or two.

We feel uneasy holding so much power, just because we live here already. But hold it we do. We have children of our own, and we want to protect our home, so we're very careful. But we also know that if we reject someone who is vulnerable and struggling, many others will certainly do the same.

This week in New York

What's happening at the United Nations today is oddly similar to our kitchen-table apartment discussions.

Many of the world's most powerful landlords are meeting for the Refugee and Migration Summit. Heads of state from all over the world, including our own Prime Minister Trudeau, will discuss the fate of more than 21.3 million refugees -- more than any time since the Second World War.

This is the first summit at this level about the large movements of refugees and migrants needing a safe place to call home. It's an historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for a better international response.

2016-09-17-1474131835-299582-UNGA.jpg
Seven-year-old Ibrahim is one of the 21.3 million people whose homes have become unlivable. Where will his family go now? World Vision Photo

An ineffective agreement?

Two prominent aid groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have criticized the agreement that's to be signed at the UN today. They say it falls short of what's needed to deal with the global crisis.

In a press release, Amnesty International wrote that UN member states are set to adopt a refugee deal that's "ineffective." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had proposed a plan in which governments would commit to welcoming "10 per cent of the world's refugees annually."

"Member states stripped the UN proposals of any substance," wrote Amnesty, "making sure there was nothing obligating them to take in specific numbers of people."

The power of the landlord

As home owners with an apartment to share, my husband and I have the absolute power to choose. We pick which tenant to take, and decide how many should live in the space. We could even take the ad down from Kijiji today, and not rent the space at all.

If we did this, though, we'd be a lot poorer. Not just financially, though money would definitely be an issue. Renting out part of our home does wonders for our home economy, no doubt about it. Many people have said that welcoming refugees to our country does the same for Canada.

But without a newcomer in our space next month, Dave and I would be poorer in other ways. We know from experience that sharing our space through the years has left us richer on the inside.

We recall the single mom and baby girl who lived here soon after we bought our home. We remember the university student with multiple sclerosis, struggling to make it to medical school. And the very elderly gentleman at a personal crossroads in his life. Each has shared their stories, given us their friendship, and helped us to think more broadly.

Refugees deserve a home

Each one of these vulnerable tenants was a gamble of sorts. They might not have "worked out." They might have yielded more cost -- financial and otherwise -- than benefit. But each of these people deserved a safe, welcoming and dignified place to call home.

It's the same with the world's refugees, as they stand waiting for someone to open the door. Canada has generously welcomed 30,647 refugees so far. For this, I'm grateful and very proud.

When it comes to the millions of refugees looking for a place to lay their heads, UN member states have the power to decide whether the door is opened -- or whether some of the world's most vulnerable families must keep looking.

For the sake of the 21.3 million people in search of a home, I pray that they choose wisely.

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