Canadians may not be as 'obsessed' over immigration this election, but it remains a key issue for parties
'We didn’t come to get welfare from the government,' one refugee said
In an East Vancouver classroom with sunlight streaming through the windows, Azar Aljalki rises from his chair, stretches, shakes and then dances with about a dozen of his peers.
Aljalki, 38, is a refugee from Syria.
He came to Canada in 2017 through a private sponsorship and now meets with fellow asylum seekers at the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture every week.
Their Wednesday morning movement exercises are part of a therapeutic warmup before they share their experiences escaping danger abroad and adjusting to life in Canada.
"My town [in Syria] was a good target for ISIS," Aljalki recounted. "Before I [left], it was 7,000 missiles [in total] and on a daily basis, 10, 20.
"Because of my kids... I decided to just flee to Canada."
The 2019 election is seeing parties stake out their positions when it comes to refugees like Aljalki and his peers — with some parties wanting expanded options for refugees and others calling for a crackdown.
Executive director Shachi Kurl of pollster Angus Reid said Canadians aren't as "obsessed" with immigration or refugees in this election as they were in 2015 but misperceptions are widespread.
In 2015, acceptance of Syrian refugees was a significant issue. The photo of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach became a flashpoint.
Between Nov. 4, 2015, and April 30, 2019, 63,938 Syrian refugees were admitted to Canada, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
This time around, Kurl said, it doesn't appear to be such a critical issue but she was surprised by the incorrect ideas held by respondents in a poll released Monday.
For instance, while only about 15 per cent of the newcomers to Canada are refugees, Canadians polled believe that number is twice as large.
Advocates say they'd like to see more support for refugees who have already settled in Canada, like Burnaby's Vicken Majarian, who has faced employment barriers ever since coming from Syria in 2015.
Sponsored by St. Gregory's Armenian Church, Majarian was a dentist in his former country — but now works as a lab technician.
"We didn't come to get welfare from the government," Majarian said. "I'm trying to give what I can and to give my kids a bright future."
Parties carve positions
In Majarian's home riding of Burnaby South, Neelam Brar is campaigning for the Liberals.
"It's important that we continue to welcome refugees as long as we follow strict protocols in ensuring that Canada remains safe," Brar said.
Her party has made the link between economic and immigration policy.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said he wants to accept more refugees but his government has imposed measures to crack down on "irregular" crossings of asylum seekers along the U.S.-Canada border. The Liberals also want to take in more human rights advocates, journalists and humanitarian workers at risk abroad.
The NDP blames Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., in effect since 2004, for irregular crossings. Immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the agreement should be suspended.
The Greens, Burnaby South candidate Brandan Wauters explained, want Canada to accept refugees displaced by climate change
CBC News attempted to schedule an interview with a Conservative Party candidate but none was made available by deadline.
The party has not released a full platform but has said it wants to crack down on illegal border crossings, have stronger screening for refugees, and promote private refugee sponsorship.
Burnaby South People's Party candidate Al Rawdah said his party would cut immigration levels in general, and substantially reduce the number of refugees. It would also improve background checks and install a "little" border fence.
'They deserve a chance'
Frank Cohn, executive director of VAST, wants the next government to do more to dispel fears about refugees.
"Whoever is in power, we'd encourage them to ensure that dialogue is there," Cohn said.
Katie Rosenberger, CEO of the Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies of British Columbia, says more is needed to support refugees already in Canada like bolstering language training and helping them get their skills recognized.
Aljalki, for his part, said coming to Canada and making a new life was relatively painless.
He has a job as a heavy-duty mechanic. He lives with his wife and two children in East Vancouver. And he feels safe.
He thinks anyone concerned about refugees coming to Canada should meet one.
"All of the people I see, they deserve a chance," he said.
With files from Belle Puri and Paisley Woodward