Sunday February 21, 2016

How Syrian refugees arriving in Canada became 'extras' in their own stories

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian, refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian, refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Listen 10:35

When he saw images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne greeting some of the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada, Kamal Al-Solaylee was overcome with pride. After all, 20 years ago, he was the one arriving in Canada.

"My initial feelings were of euphoria and happiness. This is a great country, this is a very welcoming country," says Al-Solaylee, a journalism professor at Ryerson University and the author of the 2015 Canada Reads finalist Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes

But as he saw more and more news stories about sponsors hugging refugees in airports and Canadians knitting toques to keep refugees warm during their first Canadian winter, he began to feel uncomfortable

"The story is changing. It's no longer about them, it's about us as Canadians," Al-Solaylee says. "The gaze turned inward instead of outward."

He points to CBC's "Open Arms" project, which highlights the "outpouring of Canadian generosity and support" towards refugees, as an example of how the conversation has shifted to place the focus on Canadians. 

Al-Solaylee says he understands why stories about acts of kindness and refugees' first visits to Tim Horton's resonate with journalists and their audiences. However, he worries feel-good stories are "suck[ing] the oxygen" out of important stories about what life in Canada is really like for immigrants and refugees after the welcome is over. 

"The truth is a lot of these immigrants will struggle, initially and probably for a long time. They will not be able to find jobs that call on their qualifications or experience. They will end up doing the kind of work that Canadians no longer want to do," he says. 

Al-Solaylee argues the media needs to do a better job at balancing lighter stories about refugees with stories about the harsh realities in their pasts and futures. 

Click on the button above to hear the interview.