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Refugee crisis: “This is not just a government project, it’s our project”

“I find hope in the fact that chartered accountants, bankers, social workers, friends and neighbours have come together,” Kristin Marshall says

Donations to the Scholars at Risk program made by participants at the event will be matched by U of T (photo by Milan Ilnyckyj, courtesy CCR2P)

Millions have fled Syria as refugees, preferring the unknown to the certainty of death in their homeland. For many, including those within the U of T community, this crucial issue is also a personal one.

“Last summer I visited my family in Turkey. Some of them just moved to Turkey as refugees, some of them, after much convincing, came from Syria, and some came to Turkey after immigrating to Germany, just to see us,” said Joudy Sarraj, a Faculty of Arts & Science student in her second year, studying international relations at Trinity College.  

“My grandparents went back to Syria, and it was really hard for me to say goodbye to them and to come back here, and it was orientation the next week,” she said of the bittersweet family reunion. 

Her story is not an uncommon one. Sarraj said the stories shared by family members were difficult and emotional. She felt motivated by those experiences to get involved in campus initiatives. 

Sarraj serves on the Hart House Debates Club, Hart House Debates Committee, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (CCR2P) and the U of T Refugee Alliance. Through a partnership with those campus organizations and Hart House, she organized a sold-out panel discussion on Dec. 1 at Hart House on this pressing, global issue and Canada’s involvement. 

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The panellists were Leen Al Zaibak, alumna and senior committee member of the Toronto-based Lifeline Syria, Kristin Marshall, staff lawyer at the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the Faculty of Law and Paul Heinbecker (via Skype), retired permanent representative of Canada in the United Nations and distinguished fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation. 

Photo below of Tina Park, Kristin Marshall, Leen Al Zaibak and panel moderator Raja Khouri. This photo and all below by Jiduo An, courtesy of Hart House

Tina Park, co-founder of CCR2P, summed up the themes of the evening in her opening remarks: in Canada “diversity is our strength” and it’s time for the country to reclaim a role as leader in welcoming refugees and immigrants. 

Heinbecker emphasised the importance of investing in integrating refugees, from education to employment and beyond. Investment outside the government, particularly investment from the private sector is very important, he said. 

“The current UN appeal for funds just for the Syrian crisis is only about 45 per cent committed, and the rest of it, they are just short of money, which means effectively that the lives being lived by the people in refugee camps are really on the very margins of survival,” he said. 

Marshall, a career human rights lawyer with a focus on vulnerable refugee and immigrant communities, said that even if the Syrian refugee camps are well-funded, “they’re still camps, and the future that they offer Syrian refugees is not bright.” 

But she said that the change in government and attitude has restored hope. “I find hope in the fact that groups of chartered accountants, bankers, social workers, friends and neighbours have come together to get involved in Syrian refugee sponsorship. This is not just a government project, it’s our project.”

Before joining U of T as staff lawyer, Marshall developed training workshops for service providers working with survivors of domestic violence at Community Legal Education Ontario and is currently also the senior refugee law trainer at Legal Aid Ontario. 

She recently brought a student with her on a trip to Turkey and Jordan to research refugee communities, particularly those living with or vulnerable to acquiring HIV, and to investigate international perceptions of Canada’s refugee policies. Marshall told U of T News that those perceptions could be summed up in a question: “where is Canada?” 

Canada’s role, especially as the country was a leader in the past, seemed absent on her recent trip. 

Al Zaibak said that privately-sponsored refugees benefit from support networks that government-sponsored refugees often don’t have. She also stressed that refugees are not creating terror, and that it’s unfortunate that, particularly after the Paris attacks, refugees were conflated with terrorism.  

“I would urge us all not to think of refugees as victims – they’re survivors. They bring with them persistence, determination and fire to keep on fighting,” she said.  “All Syrian refugees, from the second they arrive on Canadian soil are permanent residents. So we are not welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees, we are welcoming 25,000 new Canadians”. 

Canada should support these newcomers “as new Canadians in every aspect, not just showing them around their city, but also  the career, mentorship, job matching that we can provide,” she said. 

Another crucial support is healthcare funding, Marshall added. Marshall pointed out that under the Liberals, incoming refugees will be covered for health care as permanent residents.
The discussion drew an engaged audience – it was clear that there was a hunger to talk about possible answers and upcoming challenges to the prevailing issue. At the end of the panel discussion, event organizers collected donations for U of T’s Scholars at Risk program, which were matched by the university. 

Audience member asking the panelists a question
The event was one of many initiatives across the three campuses which address the refugee crisis: from student refugee committees, to the North American refugee health conference, The Asper Centre Refugee Law Working Group and others. 

As the country prepares to welcome 25,000 refugees by the start of 2016 and more privately-sponsored refugees throughout the year, communities and hubs of expertise like U of T will play a crucial role in welcoming and integrating refugees successfully. 

U of T News spoke to a student with a family member who was smuggled to Germany. To protect the family, the student’s identity will remain anonymous.

“My uncle left Syria, travelling through Northern Africa, through Libya, and he then went to Italy through the Mediterranean,” the student said. “That route was a lot more dangerous and he went with his three young children, who are all under the age of seven.

“His journey was three weeks of hell. They got to Germany sunburned, having run away from authorities, gangs in Northern Africa. Looking back at that, I keep thinking, that’s my uncle – I never imagined that would happen to him,” the student said.

“My uncle said that while he was on the boat, if he had known what it would be like he would have never left Syria – but at that point it’s very late for people. That’s why it’s important for countries like Canada to open their doors, when people can’t return and have no one to help out.”