As a Proud Canadian, I Welcome Refugees

Last week I came across an internet meme that said the following:

By accepting millions of “refugees” from war torn countries into our countries all we are doing is inviting their wars in along with them. Changing their location doesn’t change their ideology.

This is, sadly, just one example of many ignorant, xenophobic memes that are being shared as the pressure on western nations to lend refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq a helping hand increases. Living in a world with the internet means having to expect this crap–the internet is, after all, everyone’s soapbox.

What I didn’t expect was to see an image of this text posted on the Facebook page of an old acquaintance of mine, a person I recall as being intelligent, polite, and certainly not one to turn their nose up at anyone just because of where they’re from or what they look like. It was a strange kind of punch in the gut–I know that politically I’ve never been aligned with a lot of the friends of my youth, but I thought surely, on this fundamentally human issue, Canadians, with their proud national heritage of providing aid and peacekeeping in times of trouble, would be more or less in agreement. I guess not.

First things first, the meme itself. There are a LOT of problems in this tiny snippet of text, including:

  • The word “refugees” being placed in quotation marks, as if there is some more legitimate kind of refugee than the kind that is fleeing almost certain death at the hands of either ISIS or their own government (particularly in the case of Syria, where the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on its own people has been documented and confirmed).
  • The idea that refugees fleeing a war will bring their wars with them is absolutely ridiculous, and this should be obvious to any thinking person. For starters, how does being a victim of war and slaughter make this “their” war? And when has a refugee to Canada EVER brought “their” war with them? Did Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis bring the Third Reich to Canada? Did the English children sent to Canadian homes to ride out WWII bring the Blitz? Did my Latvian grandparents bring the Soviet army with them? No, no, and no. Refugees are FLEEING their oppressors, not packing them in a suitcase. They want to live far away from what is threatening them. That’s the point.
  • What is “their” ideology anyways? How can such a vague little sucker punch possibly presume to know the ideology of whatever group of people it is referring to as “refugees”? It wants people to fill in the blanks; it’s a wink and nod–i.e. “I’m not racist/ religiously intolerant/ paranoid, but you know what their ideology is like.” It’s not explicit (presumably so no one can dismiss it as Islamophobic), but I bet both the creator of this meme and the people sharing it are thinking of Islam. And if so, what on earth do either the creator or the person posting truly know of Islam? Sure, a lot of atrocities have been committed in its name, but the same can be said of Christianity, which has not only contemporary atrocities but also 2000 years of bloodshed and oppression to its credit. Do we presume Christianity is a naturally violent ideology in light of this huge body of evidence? No, not usually, so there is NOTHING which gives us license to do it to Islam, especially when its roots are shared with Christianity and it promotes many of the same positive qualities, including humility, peace, and, ironically, hospitality.

Normally, when I see a post like this on Facebook I disconnect. I unfollow, or unfriend, or just ignore it and try not to let it get me down. But sadly, these views aren’t uncommon and they aren’t just words. They’re harmful deep-rooted sentiments shared by more Canadians than I’d like to admit. Public sentiment shapes policy, and policy puts obstacles in the way of those Canadians who DO want to help refugees, and HAVE found a way to sponsor one or more people (this is especially true if the Conservatives continue on as Canada’s government after the October election, which is not unlikely, but even the numbers quoted by the NDP and Liberals, while higher than the numbers offered by Harper, are far less than the number of refugees we could accommodate, and will likely stay low if these kinds of sentiments persist). Besides, the person I know who posted it on Facebook isn’t someone who can be written off as a run-of-the-mill racist troll. There were obviously reasons this person felt the way they did, reasons that had a little more substance than “I don’t like people are who aren’t white and English-speaking.” (which is NOT a sentiment I would ever attribute to them and I’m not doing that now). So I decided to engage, because human lives are too important to ignore just because I don’t want to rock the boat by getting into a heated Facebook argument with an old pal.

I’m glad I did, because when you hash it out with someone instead of just reading something they shared on social media and thinking, “Whoa, that’s crazy”, you usually find yourself being presented with a more nuanced argument than the one found in a tabloid-esque meme. So I stuck it out (and to their credit, so did my acquaintance) and it seems  their actual position was a little more like this: ISIS has claimed they will sneak operatives into the West disguised as refugees [I haven’t heard of this anywhere else so I don’t know if this threat is credible but I understand why the idea would be worrisome], people seem to pushing for a lowering of screening standards to speed up refugee application processing times, obviously the lives of refugees are valuable too but it’s natural to care more about those close to you (i.e. Canadians) and want to protect them.

This kind of position is something we can work with. For example, if the idea of relaxing screening of refugee claimants is a big concern, that’s a reasonable thing to take into account in refugee policy. If we want to expedite applications for refugee status, there are safe ways to do that, according to former general and chief of defense staff Rick Hiller, who says, “Doing it quickly doesn’t mean you have to take short cuts.” As with anyone who comes into Canada, whether they’re fleeing a murderous caliphate or just driving from Seattle to watch their lame Seattle Sounders get their asses handed to them by the awesome Vancouver Whitecaps (except last time, when we lost), security, caution, and appropriate documentation is important.

As for the position that it’s natural to care more about people here in Canada than people in another country, I can certainly sympathize with that. I read about other people in other places dying all the time, and although it weighs on my heart, it is nowhere near the devastation I would feel if something happened to someone in my family or to one of my friends. Emotionally, I completely 100% understand.

But rationally, and as a Canadian who has benefited from, and indeed, owes her entire existence to immigration (I don’t think my parents would have met had my mom not been able to immigrate to Canada with my grandparents!), I can’t support policy that says that the potential for risk to even one Canadian life outweighs the very real deaths of thousands of refugees fleeing the Middle East (according to the UN Refugee Agency, 2,500 refugees have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in this summer alone).

We are Canadians, which means that most of us are the children of immigrants ourselves (speaking of children, according to the UN, more than half of Syrian refugees are under the age of 18). We are proud of our various heritages, and we should be. We are proud and happy to live in a beautiful and safe country, and we should be. But we are not superior beings. My life does not mean more just because I was lucky enough to be born here and not somewhere else. Our merit as human beings has NOTHING to do with where we were born and everything to do with our actions. And right now, our close-minded, tight-fisted, fear-mongering rhetoric is showing that maybe WE’RE the ones with the ideology problem. Since when are Canadians deaf and blind to the plight of their fellow human beings?

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Note: If you are interested in helping refugees but can’t afford to sponsor an individual or family to come to Canada, there are many agencies providing refugees desperately needed aid and require donations to continue their work. Here are a few:

[In case you’re wondering, I’ve donated to the UNHCR, but donations to any of the above agencies will help if there’s one a little closer to your heart.]

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