Why Syrian refugees might rather stay closer to home

The Mennonite Central Committee says that many Syrian refugees in the Middle East don't want to come to Canada and it's important that ongoing aid projects help them stay where they are.

11 million displaced people and refugees from Syria remain in Middle East

A Syrian refugee child from Aleppo sells flowers at a commercial street in Hamra, Beirut. (Reuters/Jamal Saidi)

While he considers the Liberal government's plan to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of the year "ambitious and generous," Rick Cober Bauman says it's just as important to help people stay in the Middle East with the hope they can one day return to their homes in Syria.

Cober Bauman is the executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. The group has a formal partnership with the federal government to act as a partner to church and community groups wanting to privately sponsor refugee families. The MCC also works with partner groups in countries like Lebanon to help refugees there. 

Most people don't want to come to Canada, they would really rather have security so that they can go home.- Rick Cober Bauman, Mennonite Central Committee Ontario

"I think we would focus on the fact that there is an effort under way to do this. Timelines, we think it's going to be very, very tight. Housing, healthcare, all the access to major services that are going to be needed and just getting enough people in place to welcome them," said Cober Bauman in an interview with Craig Norris on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition on Friday.

The Liberal cabinet met Thursday to talk about how to bring 25,000 refugees to the country by year's end, but didn't release any details on how they'd accomplish it. 

Housing, healthcare: big challenges

"It's fine to have people who will walk with a family, but if there's no place to walk them to, to live or to get them enrolled in healthcare then we're not going to have a successful sponsorship experience," said Rick Cober Bauman. "I think part of the answer is going to be dispersing widely enough that the huge pressures around things like housing aren't all concentrated in the same area."

Migrants from Syria walk alomg a platform after arriving from Salzburg, Austria, at Schoenefeld railway station in Berlin, Germany, October 5, 2015. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

He says the MCC has seen a huge increase in interest in sponsoring refugee families.

"We have gone from a more typical year of private sponsorship across the whole province of Ontario with maybe eight or ten families that we would work with and we now have 50 requests in two months that are community requests, on top of those that are coming from churches," said Cober Bauman. "This is bigger by a factor of ten or twenty already and we have no reason to think it's peaked."

"Most people don't want to come to Canada, they would really rather have security so that they can go home," said Cober Bauman. "As important as sponsorship is and resettlement, aid and humanitarian response in Lebanon is even more important." 

On the ground in Lebanon

Cober Bauman says this group focuses on working with people like Rami Shamma, the program director for Development for People and Nature Association (DPNA) in Beirut. Shamma's group provides support to Syria refugees in Lebanon with the goal of helping them settle there. 

Shamma said there are about 4.5 million refugees  in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, and another 7 million displaced people inside Syria itself and they all need support. The U.N. says it  has registered about 4.2 million Syrian refugees outside the country. 

"Our approach to supporting the refugees back in Lebanon is to support them with the basic services and basic needs in order to have a dignified life and at the same time work on changing their future in on way or another. For example we provide water services, water, hygiene and sanitation," said Shamma. "We've had several projects with MCC on shelter and psycho-social activities for children as well. We provide lots of services for refugees to be able to be living in a better place." 

Shamma says it's important that countries like Canada continue to provide support to people living there, and not just focusing on bringing more refugees here. 

"The Canadian government has been providing, for several years now, generously support for refugees back there. I think this is one component that should continue to be increasing, rather than decreasing," said Shamma. 

"The Lebanese government actually doesn't have much of a strategy to actually deal with the refugees. I mean there's also some political deadlock within the country, where there are certain groups which consider the refugees as displaced people and not refugees, so they consider that they are not responsible for them, providing them with those basic services."


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