British Columbia·Analysis

Syrian refugees: Are others left out of the generosity?

As British Columbians rush to help Syrian refugees, some other migrant communities worry they're being forgotten, and non-profits strive to spread the love around.

Non-profits challenged by how to include all refugees in the outpouring of support for Syrians

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the first dedicated flight of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

They endured war, Islamic extremism, and years of limbo in a refugee camp.

But when they finally walk through the airport gates in Canada, the Prime Minister isn't there to greet them. There's no welcome party, no news cameras rolling.

Why? They're Iraqis.

These past few weeks, we've seen some beautiful airport arrivals, and heard heartwarming stories of the generosity of strangers.

But in our rush to welcome Syrian refugees, some communities say they're being left out.

"At some point, the refugee crisis in Canada became the Syrian refugee crisis. And that's troubling," says Daniel Tseghay, an activist in Vancouver's Eritrean community.

Migrants from Eritrea rest in a building in Egypt, where many of their compatriots seek refuge before attempting to get to countries like Canada (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

Tseghay says he's proud of Canada's commitment to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees.

But he worries the world is forgetting about other refugees and migrants fleeing war and dictatorship.

And he says this selective sympathy exists in Vancouver too.

"There is a visibility or a lot of attention put on a certain class of refugees and another is absolutely ignored. Many members of African communities are noticing."

The psychology of giving

It's no surprise that Syrians are getting all the attention right now. 

The devastating photo of Alan Kurdi's drowned body gave the nebulous refugee crisis a human focus.

"If somebody comes to you and says, 'Will you help this kid in need?', that works way better than, 'Will you help these 100,000 kids in need?'" says Vancouver fundraising expert Harvey McKinnon.

"People have tested this over and over again. People can connect to the one, but they can't connect to a large group of people."

McKinnon says it creates a dilemma for non-profits. 

It's human nature to want to give to a specific cause, meaning targeted fundraising drives tend to do better.

"[But] from the charity perspective, when people give them undesignated money, meaning it's not targeted to a specific thing, that's worth way more because it allows them to move money around to wherever the need is, in fact, greatest."

Trying to share the love

Staff at the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. — the lifeline for government-assisted refugees in this province — say they're working hard to include all newcomers in the outpouring of support.

Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services, says they've had to explain to their thousands of would-be volunteers there are other refugees needing their help.

"The public by and large has said yes," Friesen says. "In most cases, it doesn't matter. We just want to help refugees."

Refugees wait to be processed after arriving in Canada. (Radio-Canada)

The Canadian Red Cross recently created a fund for Syrian arrivals in this country. But internationally, their appeal is for refugees in general.

"To create specific funds can cause some difficulty," says Elysia Dempsey, manager for the disaster management program for B.C. and Yukon with the Canadian Red Cross.

"By having a broader campaign we're able to target and reach out and help support individuals from a variety of different countries who are needing to leave."

Dempsey doesn't think the focus on Syrian refugees comes at the expense of other displaced people.

In fact, she believes the generosity towards Syrians can increase funding and services for all refugees.

"Although this is a really specific point, with Syrian refugees coming into Canada ... I think it actually will be beneficial for all refugees in the grand scheme of things." ​


Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at or @crolfsen


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