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Syrian Refugees Are Already Making Canada A Greater Nation

With a little love, understanding and help when it is needed, we can successfully welcome others into this country.

07/05/2017 10:38 EDT | Updated 07/05/2017 11:37 EDT

The project to bring Syrian refugees to this country, now 18 months old, remains a great symbol of the potential of what we can do when we work together.

It was December of 2015 when the first planeloads of Syrian families, fleeing war in their home country and the terrible conditions of camps in other countries where they had first fled, landed in Canada.

Mark Blinch / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau helps a young Syrian refugee try on a winter coat after she arrived with her family from Beirut at the Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont., Dec. 11, 2015.

The moment was made famous around the world when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put a parka on a young Syrian girl who was about to experience her first Canadian winter. It was a made-for-television moment, to be sure, but the real work was being done behind the scenes in homes and makeshift offices of volunteer organizations across the country.

It's that second part, the largely unseen part, that makes me most proud. Away from the cameras and the spotlight, thousands of Canadians rolled up their sleeves to help the refugee families as they arrived. Thousands more dug through closets and households for any items they could spare or opened their wallets to make donations.

Unifor was among those helping. Our members volunteered in large numbers across Canada to sponsor families, help them settle in and to navigate their new life and transition. Along with opening our hearts and households, Unifor and our Social Justice Fund donated $175,000 to help refugees settle here. We also contributed to help families in refugee camps in Jordan and to a disabilities centre there.

We have learned how little effort it takes to help others.

Families that once feared for their lives in war-torn Syria now plan for the future in Canada. Children who once watched the streets where they played crumble in the dust of government bombs now go to school and dream about what they might do with their lives. Smiles have replaced tears. Hope has replaced despair.

For the volunteers, they have learned many valuable lessons. I know I have. We have learned to appreciate just how lucky we are to live in a relatively peaceful and democratic country. We have learned how little effort it takes to help others, and how incredibly rewarding it can be. In many ways we have been reminded what the spirit and actions of social justice can do to build a better world for all.

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This is the true legacy of the last 18 months. It is one we must cherish, even as others try to tell us different.

There are those, such as Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, who would tell us the legacy of the refugee program is "a battered wife and a bloodied hockey stick" after one Syrian refugee was convicted of beating his wife.

She could not be more wrong. Violence is not rooted in refugees nor are they the problem.

THE CANADIAN PRESS
Assam Hadhad, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada last year, displays a tray of chocolates at his shop, Peace by Chocolate, in Antigonish, N.S. on Sept. 21. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The real legacy of the Syrian refugee program is all the families who have worked so hard to give back since arriving -- from the families in Alberta who donated to the Fort McMurray fire relief within months of their arrival, saying they knew what it was like for a family to be forced to flee in fear, to the Hadhad family rebuilding their Syrian chocolate company in rural Nova Scotia.

But more than that, the legacy is in the thousands of families who are quietly going about their lives, earning a living, paying their bills, raising their children and contributing to the rich diversity of this country -- just like millions of others across Canada.

In the U.S., we are seeing borders close to people from Muslim countries, and clouds gathering for an escalation of tensions and aggression between the United States and Syria.

My hope is that we don't rest on the laurels of the great work we did.

The legacy of that sort of policy can only be more war, more deaths, more refugees and more children thrown into a frightening future.

I can see no good coming from any of that, and am proud that in Canada, as the Syrian refugee program shows, with a little love, understanding and help when it is needed, we can successfully welcome others into this country.

Syria is not the only country turning out refugees in the face of war or famine, and it won't be the last.

The need is great. Canada has shown that it has a knack for helping out and doing its part. My hope is that we don't rest on the laurels of the great work we did with Syrian refugees over the past year and a half, but rather that collectively we commit to learn from our experiences in this program and continue to reach out to help others.

To me, that's what Canada is all about.

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