Manitoba·Opinion

Canadians can't afford to ignore what's happening to Syrian refugees

If you follow the news, you’ll know that the war reports are so awful to absorb.
Justin Ryan says it is critical resources are in place to provide Syrian refugees with the educational, language and psychological supports they will need to integrate into New Brunswick society. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

If you follow the news, you'll know war reports are awful to absorb. 

I specifically remember hearing, upon the outbreak of war in Syria, how many pregnant women ended up in premature labour, in hospitals filled to overflowing, without the level of neonatal care that doctors needed to keep those infants alive. At the time, I was a pregnant woman safe in Canada. When I heard that report, I cried. Things have only gotten worse, as we all know.

It can be hard to stand by and hear the news when I know that there is little I can do to help.  Instead, I wondered whether it was easier not to be on the 24-hour-a-day news cycle. When countries went to war in the days before the constant updates on television and the internet, perhaps we didn't know so much. Maybe it was easier to turn away and pretend it wasn't happening.

Every so often there's a petition to sign or some other symbolic way to try and make a difference. Meanwhile, there are so many other issues to worry over: missing and murdered indigenous women, the growing number of hungry people  who must depend on food banks, the dropping value of the Canadian dollar — the list is long.

How to move forward?

Alan Kurdi, 3, washed up on a Turkish beach September 2, 2015 and sparked outrage and support for the plight of millions of displaced Syrian refugees.
It becomes impossible to figure out how to make anything better, and to be honest, there are only so many hours in a day. Most of us are trying to contend with our households, families, jobs and how that very same cost of rising groceries affects us. It all gets to be too much.

One person I met explained that after she had her child, she just learned to cut the world news out entirely. It was too much to handle, and with a nursing infant, she had so many hormonal ups and downs that the hourly news report left her weeping. After I had my twins, it was all too easy to understand this response. Upon reflection, I realized this was truly a first-world problem.

For all those in war-affected regions, living in bombed-out villages or refugee camps, foraging for the basic necessities, they cannot afford to ignore the news. It came to them. Those mothers who lost babies in the Syrian hospital wards, or in bombings? They didn't get to turn away and shut off the car radio when the news came on.
Vicki Melo is trying to raise money to sponsor a Syrian refugee family to come to Winnipeg. (CBC)

Facing the depths of this crisis is scary. I believe many North Americans couldn't look away when they realized that families were so desperate to escape the Syrian conflict that they would risk their lives with smugglers on small boats. When the photos of Alan Kurdi, the three year old who died at sea with his brother and his mother, splashed across our newspapers and screens, things in Canada changed.

Trudeau and his government are indeed serious about helping some of those Syrian refugees and that we will be welcoming 25,000 of them to Canada in the near future. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman looks forward to welcoming as many as possible to Winnipeg, and the provincial government has committed to accepting 2,000.

Despite the efforts of some politicians (both north and south of the border) whose rhetoric seeks to conflate refugees with terrorists, this plan seems to be moving ahead with speed. I, like many others, am looking forward to hearing the details soon.

Why? When military forces mobilized in past conflicts, in Canada, in the U.S., in Britain and beyond, the home front mobilized, too. Those who weren't in battle (women, children, elderly and the wounded) did everything they could to help, from knitting wool socks to collecting rubber and nylon. There were gas rations and limits on all sorts of commercial goods — and everyone worked together to defeat a common enemy.

This time, Canada isn't taking a front row seat in some of the military efforts, but the home front still needs to mobilize. I am hopeful that as the Liberal government announces more details, the resettlement agencies will speak up and we'll know how to help. 

Not all of us have the funds to be able to sponsor a family or the time to volunteer. Even if we already donate to charity and volunteer, giving is like loving someone; there's room to love more. Most of us have a little bit of extra, somewhere in our lives, to pass along. We'll soon get our chance to help.

The naysayers will say things like "old stock Canadians" and "Nobody helped me" when asked to give. To that, I add my voice to the many who have already spoken out.

Unless your family is a First Nations one, your ancestors were once new here.. As newcomers, someone sponsored or greeted them at the train station  or helped them learn how to buy their first supplies to prepare for winter. Someone helped them to escape violence or financial destitution to make a better life here. You are here, in part, due to their help.

'None is too many'

Once before, Canada said "None is too many," abandoning many Jewish refugees to die.

We are better people than that. We can do more.

No, I cannot save the world on my own. However, I've collected a nearly-new parka, some wool socks, a hand-knit cowl and some baby-sized snow boots from my basement. I've read a book on Ramadan to my preschoolers to help them learn more to welcome our new Manitobans. I'm waiting to hear how to step up my game — one mitten at a time.

Manitoba: 2,000 refugees are a lot of folks to welcome during our cold winter. Please, let's do it together.    

Joanne Seiff is a newcomer to Canada, the author of two books and the mom of twin preschoolers. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.

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