By: Kelly Toughill in Halifax
Thousands of families will soon get a second chance to bring parents and grandparents to Canada.
That’s the good news recently announced by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
The bad news is that there is no chance Canada will keep its promise to issue 10,000 permanent resident visas to extended family members in 2017.
Officials won’t even finish collecting the new applications until December and it will take months to process those applications after they arrive.
Problems with the parent and grandparent sponsorship program are a classic case of great intentions gone wrong. In this case, families who followed the rules were suddenly shut out of the system, and other families were given false hope that they could reunite with ailing relatives.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have changed Canada’s immigration system significantly in the last 16 months. They reversed a much-criticized law that allowed the government to strip people of their Canadian citizenship. They set up new programs to help businesses recruit tech workers and to support Francophone immigration outside Quebec. They made it easier for entrepreneurs to come to Canada, and eased rules for workers who want to move to struggling Atlantic Canada. They shortened the wait time to sponsor a spouse and made the forms easier to read and understand. They helped international students by setting up a new, speedy immigration program in Atlantic Canada, giving students extra points for Canadian degrees and making it easier for international students to become citizens after they get permanent resident status.
Those changes were greeted with relief and even gratitude across Canada.
Changes to the parent and grandparent program were supposed to be another feel-good tweak to the system. Instead, the changes angered the very consitutuency the government was trying to please.
Under the Conservative government, Ottawa set a quota each year for the number of Canadian families that could sponsor a parent or grandparent for permanent resident status. The Liberal government doubled the quota from 5,000 to 10,000, but initially kept the same process: applications opened in early January and closed when the quota was reached – always within days.
To win one of the coveted visas, most families hired experienced immigration lawyers or consultants and paid stiff fees for private couriers to wait in line outside the Mississauga processing centre the night before the program opened.
Just three weeks before the program was expected to open this year, the government announced it was scrapping the first-come, first-served system. Instead, then-Immigration Minister John McCallum invited families to fill out an online form and promised to hold a lottery to decide who could formally apply. He called the new process “more fair and transparent.”
The announcement came after thousands of families had already prepared applications that require medical exams, police certificates and expensive translations, not to mention lawyers’ fees. Many families wasted months of work and thousands of dollars on applications they would never get to file.
The larger problem, though, was the online form set up to register for the lottery; families could fill out the form without figuring out if they were actually eligible to sponsor a parent or grandparent.
Most know that only Canadian citizens and permanent residents can sponsor a parent or grandparent for permanent resident status. But many don’t know that you must be able to support that parent and that the only acceptable proof of your financial ability is past income tax forms. Many also didn’t realize that parents and grandparents must be healthy to immigrate to Canada.
When immigration lawyers and regulated consultants saw the online form, many immediately warned of coming pandemonium. Some dismissed those warnings as sour grapes, suggesting that lawyers were just mad that clients might be able to sponsor relatives without their high-priced help.
It turns out the lawyers were right.
Almost 100,000 families registered for the lottery, but only a fraction of the 10,000 that were invited to apply actually managed to do so.
Immigration consultants shared stories of clients showing up on their doorstep with expectations that Canada was going to immediately fly their relatives here because the family had “won the lottery.” Many had no idea they still had to pull together the complex and expensive application in 90 days. In June, an immigration official told a conference that only 700 of the 10,000 families had filed applications, and that 15 percent of those applications were incomplete.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada still doesn’t know how many of the 10,000 families invited to apply will actually get to bring their relatives to Canada. A spokesperson said this week that 6,020 of the 10,000 families invited to apply last February actually filed applications. However, immigration officers still don’t know how many of those application are complete or valid. Those numbers are expected later this fall.
In the meantime, Ottawa has quietly launched a second lottery. The notice was posted Friday afternoon before Labour Day. The new invitations were sent out on Sept. 6. Families must finish the applications by Dec. 8, and it will take several months after that deadline for permanent resident visas to be issued.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen vigorously defended the new application process in early summer, when the problems first became public. Hussen could not be reached for comment this week, but a spokesperson for the department suggested the new process might change.
“This is the first year that we’re using the new random selection intake process, and we are actively monitoring this model to see how we can make improvements in future years,” communications advisor Faith St.-John wrote in an email.
Kelly Toughill is an associate professor of journalism at the University of King’s College and founder of Polestar Immigration Research Inc.
Commentary by Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton
For many Sikhs in Canada today, the Komagata Maru incident still looms large in our consciousness.
For anyone not familiar with this event in our nation’s history, in May 1914 the Komagata Maru sailed from Hong Kong bound for Vancouver, carrying 376 passengers. Most of the passengers were from the Punjab, India. All were British subjects.
At that time, Canada had a regulation referred to as “continuous passage” which stated that immigrants must "come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship."
The regulation had been brought into force in 1908 to curb Indian immigration to Canada. The passengers on the ship intended to challenge this regulation. On their arrival, the ship was denied docking privileges, and eventually the ship was escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian military in July 1914 and forced to sail back to India, where 19 of the passengers were killed by gunfire upon disembarking and many others imprisoned.
The Komagata Maru story is an example of what was then the ultimate expression of colonial bigotry, exposing Canada’s deliberate process in controlling immigration by excluding those people the government of the day deemed unfit to enter. These justifications were couched in racist and ethnocentric views of "progress", "civilization", and "suitability" which all were used to support the view that Canada should remain a "White Man's Country".
In terms of immigration policy, the Canada of today is the complete opposite of still colonial pre-World War I Canada.
Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that our borders are open to anyone. But this “openness” is now being tested. Refugee claimants reacting to U.S. President Donald Trump’s tougher stand on immigration have begun to head north to what they may see as greener, more accepting pastures. They are now daily crossings at the border, flouting the Canada – U.S. “Safe Third Country Agreement”, under which refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first "safe" country they arrive in.
In landing in the U.S., but crossing our border as refugees, they are in fact breaking the law and this has become a difficult situation for Prime Minister Trudeau, while simultaneously making many Canadians very uneasy.
Many of us applauded our new government’s efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. I believe a big part of the general acceptance of this policy was rooted in public perception that the process was well organized, refugee claimants were thoroughly screened and upon arrival the housing, schooling and other necessary supports were well in place. The latest development is the opposite of organized, with claimants crossing Canada’s porous and largely uncontrolled border with no pre-screening and no homes and sponsors waiting to receive them.
Canadians are now watching to see how our government will react to this new refugee situation. If Canada does not exert its sovereignty, honour the Safe Third Country Agreement, and deter these opportunistic attempts at what can only be seen as “shopping for a yes” by claimants, this trickle will become a wave.
Canada is ill prepared for uncontrolled refugee claimants streaming into this country, and I believe the majority of Canadians expect our government to act in Canada’s best interest. This means not merely reacting to claimants crossing our borders, but to act by deterring it. We are a country that values fair process and the rule of law.
Today, Canada has a compassionate, principled approach to both immigration and refugees. Our government’s inability to control this developing situation may ultimately do harm to our current refugee system, ultimately causing Canadians to have a lack of faith in the system, and ultimately in the government that is charged with managing it.
Prime Minister Trudeau will need to step outside of his comfort zone and put in place firm measures to respond to this looming crisis. At times like these, his usual “sunny ways” approach will have to give way to more firm leadership.
The Prime Minister is being tested here, and his next move may finally provide Canadians with a true indication of just how fit to lead Justin Trudeau really is.
Brampton-based Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer.
Commentary by Fred Maroun in Ottawa
Kellie Leitch is one of the candidates seeking the leadership of Canada’s Conservative party, and she attracted much attention with her proposal for “screening immigrants, refugees, and visitors, for anti-Canadian values”. There are two parts to Leitch’s proposal.
First, there is the concept of Canadian values then there is the screening.
Leitch is simply advancing widely accepted principles. She lists six values, which belong in three categories:
· Nice-sounding but unenforceable character traits: “helping others”, “hard work”, and “generosity”.
· “Freedom and tolerance”, which she elaborates to mean “equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law”. These values are already covered in further details in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our constitution.
· “Equal opportunity”, less a moral value than a political belief because it affects the functioning of government rather than the actions of individuals.
Canadian values are not a Conservative or even a Liberal idea even though we owe our charter to former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The term “Canadian values” is not widely used, yet the values are widely accepted by Canadians and even enshrined in our constitution.
On this basis, Leitch’s proposal should not be controversial, but it has become a lightning rod because there is the suspicion that it targets Muslims.
Are Canadian Values Islamophobic?
If Canadian values are seen to be hostile to Islam, it is because they are, at least when it comes to Islam as practised today by the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries. Those countries have no democratic freedoms, lesser rights for women and some ethnic groups, limited freedom of religion, and limited legal rights for non-citizens.
Islam is often used as justification for terrorism and other forms of violence in many parts of the world.
It is natural to be concerned about whether Muslims who come to Canada will negatively affect our values in the long term by adopting some of the same practices used in their countries of origin. This fear exists among much of the population of the Western world, including Canada, yet few mainstream politicians dare raise it or, even less, propose solutions.
Although Leitch does not state it, it is clear that her proposal is a way of addressing the fear of Islam. Her refusal to make the connection may be an attempt to avoid being labelled anti-Muslim. Leitch insists that her proposal is not anti-Muslim, and she is correct. Leitch is addressing legitimate fears of Islam in a positive way, by promoting Canadian values, which are consistent with the values of many individual Muslims, and not in a negative way, which would be to single out Islam as U.S. President Donald Trump has done through his recent executive order.
Our charter contradicts some of the widely practised Muslim principles, but it also contradicts some Christian and Jewish principles. For example, some Christian and Jewish denominations do not support gender equality.
If our Charter, and by extension our Canadian values, were anti-Muslim then they would also have to be considered anti-Christian and anti-Jewish, which is not the case. The Canadian Charter explicitly protects freedom of religion, while it expects Canadians to abide by our Canadian values. This is a recognition that individuals can think for themselves and can believe in a faith without blindly applying each of its stated principles.
Highly Desirable Policy
In this light, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Pierre Trudeau’s son, should be even moral vocal than Leitch in promoting Canadian values, but instead, he is choosing to support a motion that condemns “Islamophobia”. Muslims and all other minorities must be protected against discrimination and violence, but politicians are hypocritical when they pretend that Islam is not a legitimate concern for many Canadians.
Canadian values should be a source of pride, not a source of partisan debate. If newcomers to Canada can be screened to protect our values, such a policy should be welcomed by everyone, including by Muslims who are here to escape the tyrannical regimes of their countries of origin.
Leitch’s proposal is still at a very early stage, and there are valid questions on how it would be implemented to avoid discrimination on the basis of religion. It is on such practical aspects that the debate should center. It may turn out that her proposal is not feasible, but it does not necessarily follow that this is a needless debate.
by Jooneed Jeeroburkhan in Montreal
The cold-blooded shooting of six Muslims following evening prayers on Jan 29 at a Québec City mosque has, predictably, amplified the acrimonious debate over racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in Quebec – as the suspect, who also injured a dozen others, is a 27-year-old white Québécois university student.
Calls for an Inquiry Commission on “Systemic Racism in Québec” quickly redoubled and political leaders, responding only piecemeal, did not hesitate to label the mass killing an “act of terrorism” – although “terrorism” is not among the six counts of murder the Québec City police have charged Alexandre Bissonnette with.
Never to miss an opportunity, militant secularists, including Muslim ones, chimed in, accusing political leaders, from Quebec’s Philippe Couillard to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, of “Islamizing Canadian Democracy” – while progressive secularists, Québécois mainly, complained some people were heaping collective guilt on all Québécois for the crime of one individual – a role reversal since all Muslims are usually held responsible for each and every terrorist act committed by Takfiris/Salafis, ISIL/Daesh, Al Qaeda…
Skewed against immigrants
And, as usual, familiar noises came from the English North American media about Quebec being “more racist” than the rest of Canada – and the Quebec National Assembly unanimously condemned a Washington Post article, penned by Vancouver-based J.J. McCullough, saying exactly that, adding Quebec’s “history of anti-Semitism” and “religious bigotry” leads to “more massacres” like this one.
The motion was moved by the opposition Parti Québécois, the party whose ethno-centrist “Charter of Values” bill died on the order paper as the PQ was resoundingly defeated by the Liberals (41% to 25%) in the 2014 elections. The Bloc Québécois proposed a similar motion in Ottawa denouncing the newspaper article as “hateful”, but the House of Commons refused to debate it.
As everywhere else throughout the hegemonic, and increasingly isolationist, West, the playing field, and the rules, remain heavily skewed against immigrants, refugees and all minority communities, yet the ruling communities paint themselves more and more as victims. And this trend has become noticeable in Quebec too in the wake of the Jan 29 shooting.
Re-igniting "reasonable accommodation"
To be fair, a huge mass of Québécois remain committed to an open and plural society, welcoming of diversity and militant in solidarity, as tens of thousands made it clear by attending a public meeting next to a mosque, and in snow and deep sub-zero temperature on Jan 31, in the heavily immigrant neighbourhood of Park Extension in Montreal, home of our very own Little South Asia.
Heart-warming as this demonstration was, it is highly unlikely that the discourse resulting from the Québec City shooting will help in putting to rest the old debate over “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec. If anything, it has re-ignited it. And police and media secrecy and selective leaks have only fed suspicion and distrust.
In the early hours following the massacre, media reports quoting informed sources, even witnesses, suggested there were two masked gunmen, and they shouted the Muslim cry of “Allah o Akbar”. The first-named suspect was a Muslim from Morocco, and stories suggested it may have been a settling of accounts between two neighbouring mosques of rival denominations.
The police then announced the Muslim man was “only a witness” and that the prime suspect was Alexandre Bissonnette – who apparently called police himself and gave himself up on the bridge linking Québec City to Orléans Island. The media then posted the photo of a suited and clean-cut boyish looking Bissonnette – who we were told was known in local social media circles as a pro-Fascist, anti-Feminist, anti-Immigrant, Islamophobic admirer of US President Donald Trump. But the police remains silent – and the media has stopped digging.
Appearing Feb 6 before the Senate committee on national security, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson refused to give details of the inquiry into the Québec City shooting. He instead voiced concern that the “caustic tone” of “political discourse” in Canada may contribute to “radicalize criminal extremists”. For its part, CSIS has warned of the recent development “of a Canadian online anti-Islam movement, similar to ones in Europe.”
As in the US and Europe, Quebec and Canada are in the throes of a major global re-balancing of power, marked by a decline of century-old global Western hegemony. The rise of xenophobia, particularly Islamophobia, and of right-wing populism and fascism, is a by-product of this momentous crisis – and the Québec City shooting, like the election of Donald Trump to the White House and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, are its symptoms.
The trials and traumas are bound to get worse before they get better.
Jooneed Jeeroburkhan, 70, is a journalist, writer, human rights activist, feminist and grandfather living in Montreal. He came to study in Canada, on a Commonwealth scholarship, 50 years ago from Mauritius. He retired from the Montreal daily La Presse in 2009 after 35 years as a reporter and analyst on international affairs, visiting some 60 countries in the process. He published a book of essays, in French, on his native country, in 2010, titled Un autre Maurice est possible (Another Mauritius is Possible).
Commentary by Binoy Kampmark in Melbourne, Australia
It was a moment of delightful reflection. The indecently smug politicians of a distant island continent, wealthy, cruel in refugee policy and lazy in development, stunned by encountering a short fused U.S. President who had little time for a “dumb” deal.
That deal, prematurely hatched during the last stages of the Obama administration with the Turnbull government, would see 1,250 refugees on Australia’s questionable offshore centres on Manus Island and Nauru, settled in the United States.
(As Canada's prime minister Justin Trudeau heads to Washington for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and the province of Manitoba deals with a large number of refugees streaming across the border, Turnbull's experience could prove useful. As ipolitics.ca has reported, the visit comes on the heels of reports of diplomatically bruising phone calls between Trump and both Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, in which he apparently broke diplomatic protocol and slammed both for an Australian-US refugee-swapping deal and Mexico’s handling of “tough hombres.”)
Australia’s fanatical insistence on not processing refugees and asylum seekers arriving by sea lanes has produced a flawed and unsustainable gulag system in the Pacific, along with deals of mind scratching eccentricity.
Poorer countries such as Cambodia and Nauru are deemed appropriate processing centres and places of re-settlement, despite local hostilities and incompatibilities. Wealthier countries such as New Zealand tend to be ignored as optional points since resettlement there, should it happen, would be embolden new arrivals. The one exception – the United States – was largely premised on both its distance from Australia and daftness of mind amongst Canberra’s policy fraternity.
In its desperation to find customers in the global supermarket of refugee shopping, Washington offered a tentative hand to feed the Australian habit. That hand was rapidly withdrawn on Donald Trump’s signing of the Executive Order banning travel from seven mainly Muslim states. Many of these nationals feature in the 1,250 total, with Iranians making up the largest cohort. (It was a deal that Turnbull, incidentally, refused to condemn: Australia, he realises, knows what bans and bars to immigrants and refuges look like.)
According to the Washington Post, Trump explained in exasperated fashion to Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull by phone that the agreement was “the worst deal ever” and made it clear he was “going to get killed” politically if it was implemented. In his pointed assertion, Turnbull was effectively attempting to export the “next Boston bombers” to the United States. Australia, usually painfully supine before the wishes of the United States, had surprised Trump with “the worst call by far.”
Caught by the icy fury of the Trump blast, the conversation between the two leaders was cut short: what was slated for an hour became a 25 minute heckle and boast. The size of Trump’s electoral college win was reputedly mentioned, while the number of refugees was inflated.
Did The Donald hang up on the stunned Turnbull? The meek response followed: “I’m not going to comment on the conversation.” The official record from Washington made the school boy encounter dully deceptive: “Both leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the US-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.”
Taking to his preferred medium of announcement and expression, he tweeted in disbelief that he could be bound by a previous undertaking: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
Turnbull preferred an Alice in Wonderland approach to Trump’s tongue lashing, beating a hasty retreat down the rabbit hole in confused hope. Citing what seemed to be a distinctly different, mutated conversation, a brow beaten Turnbull preferred to refer to the president’s official spokesman who confirmed that “the president … would continue with, honour the agreement we entered into with the Obama administration, with respect to refugee settlement.”
This parallel diplomacy approach was also adopted before the National Press Club: “The Trump administration has committed to progress with the arrangements to honour the deal… that was entered into with the Obama administration, and that was the assurance the president gave me when we spoke on the weekend.”
To be fair to the confused Turnbull, the Trump administration is proving to be quite a tease. Volcanic contradictions are fizzling out of the White House on a daily basis, the toddler, as he has been accused of being, ever erratic with his tempers. Trump pours cold water on the deal; the White House spokesman Sean Spicer, probably informed by a different set of whispers, comes up with another statement that Washington would, in fact, follow through:
“The deal specifically deals with 1,250 people,” explained Spicer to the White House press corps, “they’re mostly in Papua New Guinea, being held… there will be extreme vetting applied to all of them as part and parcel of the deal that was made.”
Even if this near aborted deal were to revive in spectacular confusion, it would only apply to refugees who “express an interest” in being settled in the US, and who satisfied an “extreme vetting” regime. Numbers matter less than process, or, in the words of secretary of the immigration department Mike Pezzullo from November, this was “a process-driven arrangement rather than a numerical arrangement.” What price humanity.
This entire incident is being taken as a litmus test of Trump’s relations with his allies. Will the man boy behave or berate? Towards Mexico and Australia, his approach is one of irritable businessman rather than sober statesman.
Nor should the other side be neglected in this farcical cut of entertainment. Canberra could have embraced the other option, one unacceptable for the Turnbull government: abide by the Refugee Convention and duly settle the refugees in Australia. Can the cant; observe international law. Trump’s fumes of indignation would be avoided and Canberra would be doing something near unprecedented: implementing an approach of independence and obligation.
Commentary by Steve Dooley in Surrey
A Surrey forum held earlier this year on helping Syrian refugees settle in our area started with an ice-breaker. Participants were asked to stand if they were born outside Canada.
About a third of the room stood.
They were next asked to stand if their parents were born outside the country. More stood.
Grandparents? More took to their feet.
And at great grandparents, nearly the whole room was standing.
In the multicultural dynamic that is Canada, we know that apart from our Aboriginal communities, all of us, at one point in our family lineage, came from somewhere else. And over the nearly 150 years of nation building, there have been many paths to becoming part of the Canadian fabric.
Some have been relatively easy, others, born of great tragedy – those fleeing war, trauma and abuse, not necessarily coming to Canada as a choice.
Eager to contribute
And with the picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey, the world opened its eyes to the latest forced migration from Syria, with many Syrian refugees arriving in Canada over the past six months.
Many refer to the settlement of Syrian refugees as a crisis. There have been fears that federal government targets would overwhelm settlement services and host municipalities.
There have been many challenges in meeting immediate and short-term needs of refugees, who woke up after a long flight, finding themselves in this new place called Canada.
Long wait lists for English training, housing shortages, particularly for larger families, and lack of employment opportunities are very real problems being addressed in communities across Canada.
A recent experience I had with a small group of refugees in Surrey has led me to believe that far from a crisis, the settlement of new refugees in Canada is in fact a huge opportunity.
Being a good neighbour
As the lead researcher on a year-long, recently completed study involving Simon Fraser University and several community partners, I had the pleasure of working with seven recent refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq and El Salvador. They were recruited as project research assistants (RAs) to help set the study’s scope, recruit participants, lead focus groups, interpret findings and participate in community planning.
While each had a personal story of tragedy and survival, they were eager to contribute, brought a broad set of skills and capacity to the work, and become leaders within their own communities.
The study, Our Community Our Voice: The settlement and Integration Needs of Refugees in Surrey, B.C., was a joint effort between SFU, the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) and the City of Surrey.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada provided funding through the Surrey LIP. SFU’s involvement exemplifies the University’s commitment to engaging our communities, being a good neighbour and helping to solve issues that affect our communities.
Our report, which will help the city draft its settlement plan, spoke to the many issues facing refugees, and lays out a series of recommendations, from additional resources for new or existing programs targeting health, language, employment and housing, to improving how we communicate with refugees at all levels of the settlement process, and helping the community to better understand and engage with refugees during their transition.
Talents and dreams
No one understands this better than the refugees themselves, who deeply informed our discussions. And our RAs were the bridge.
In community development we often refer to skills development as “capacity building”.
It was clear to me that these refugees brought a lot of capacity to the amazing work they did, and I was thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to work with this stellar group of individuals.
There is still much work to be done, but these RAs showed us first-hand how the refugees coming to Canada bring far more than the label imposed on them. They have talents and dreams and hopes for their children.
And, while some will find their way back to their homelands, most will become part of the Canadian fabric, stay and make contributions to nation building.
Some will live quiet and simple lives, while others go on to become lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers, or go into politics, start a new business venture, open a new media outlet.
They will build things, work in construction and on the factory floor. So will their children. But through the actions of daily living, all will contribute to the Canadian dynamic.
Based on Canadian history and my own experience from this study, I know, with time, there is space for opportunity to trump tragedy. It is not a crisis we have on our hands, but another in a long series of humanitarian support efforts that over time will lead to positive impacts on our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation.
Thirty years from now, in another community forum on how to support the latest wave of refugees, people will be asked to stand if they are born outside Canada. The Syrian refugees of today will stand thinking back on their own experiences of settlement.
And, they will lend a hand.
Steve Dooley has been the Executive Director of Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus for the past 3 years. Having developed his community based research interests over 20 years, he continues to address social and civic issues such as refugee settlement, poverty, and crime reduction. Steve co-chairs the City of Surrey's Poverty Reduction Coalition and sits on Surrey's Local Immigration Partnership (LIP).
by Janice Dickson in Ottawa
Sitting cross-legged on a thin UNHCR mat covering a concrete floor and nursing her 14-month-old, Yasmeen Al-Alow was glad to be out of the jail that is Village 5 — Azraq’s notorious camp-within-the-camp.
Surrounded by barbed wire, Village 5 and Village 2 are where new Syrian refugees were taken before Jordan sealed its borders. Those inside the villages haven’t been allowed outside the wire for months. The Jordanian government fears the new arrivals pose a security threat to the other refugees in the camp. Containing new refugees in the prison-like camps is one way to decrease the chance of ISIS infiltration, authorities say.
Those living in Village 5 and Village 2 are virtual prisoners; unlike Syrian refugees who live in Azraq’s other villages, they are not allowed to walk through the streets, to the supermarket, or anywhere at all.
The Azraq refugee camp, located in a remote, sweltering desert landscape southeast of the capital Amman, is home to nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war. Half of Azraq’s residents are children.
Most of the Syrians living in Villages 5 and 2 arrived from a desert region surrounded by sandbanks along the Jordanian border. The United Nations estimates that more than 85,000 people are stranded in Ruqban — a camp near the point where Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet — and Hadalat camp, 80 km to the west, where Al-Alow and her family were stranded for months.
iPolitics asked to visit Villages 5 and 2. A government official at the camp said it’s forbidden, citing security reasons. Photos were not permitted, either.
Since November, the Canadian government has welcomed nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees. King Abdullah of Jordan told the BBC in February that his country is at the “boiling point” because of an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The king said the international community has to offer more help if it wants Jordan to continue taking refugees.
The Jordanian government compromised, however, and set up Village 5 in March. It was a move intended to help international aid agencies trying to expedite the admission of thousands of refugees, like Al-Alow, who were stuck waiting at the border.
Al-Alow, 21, and her husband Muhammed, 26, had been living in their new caravan in Village Six for just over a week. Two jugs of water and a small kettle sat atop the small table at the front of the caravan that serves as a kitchen.
Al-Alow said she and her family are refugees by accident. They left their home in Syria a few months ago with the intention of visiting family in Jordan — but when they arrived at the Syrian border, they had no choice but to live in the berm while they waited to get into Jordan. That wait took four months; by then, the smugglers who drove them to the Syrian border could not take them back home.
“My family came to visit from Kuwait and they were on the other side of the barbed wire,” Al-Alow said via a translator. That visit lasted five minutes.
“We didn’t talk. We just cried.”
Kuwait has also sealed its borders, blocking Syrians from joining family members there.
Najwa Al-Shaikh, 32, and her four children arrived from Syria a few months ago; her family also lived in Village 5. Al-Shaikh’s mother arrived beforehand so their caravan is quite homey. Her mother has set up a little convenience store where children come to buy candy.
Despite the 35-degree heat, Al-Shaikh offered me hot tea and sugar on a silver tray, a display of Syrian hospitality found in every caravan I visited.
Al-Shaikh said she and her young children waited in the desert for months with little food or water in harsh conditions before they were granted permission to enter Jordan.
Her husband was arrested by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, she said. Sometimes, regime authorities tell her that her husband is still alive — other times they tell her he’s been killed.
She gestured toward her 11-year-old daughter Ala, who pulled up her pant cuff to reveal a thin leg covered with scars.
“One of my daughters was killed by the regime, and Ala was injured by the rockets,” she said. All Ala remembers is playing in the playground that day.
The situation in Azraq is “very bad,” the young woman said. Her mother shook her head and suggested that in a month or two, her daughter will adjust.
Aecha Mohammed Shaban, 29, and her four children are thankful for the safety the camp offers.
“In the beginning it was very difficult to live here, how can we live here?” said Shaban, sitting on a long cushion which doubles as a bed for her and her children at night.
Suddenly, the sound of gunshots coming from a nearby military base shattered the desert silence. The children — who had been smiling by their mother’s side — covered their ears and began to cry.
iPolitics’ Janice Dickson visited Jordan from July 9 – July 25th. Dickson spent long days in Jordan’s refugee camps talking to Syrian refugees about the challenges in the camps and their gruelling journey across the desert to get there.
Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca
Written by Muslim Link
Muslim Link interviewed Rayanne Bendaoud about how her encounter with a Syrian refugee in Ottawa inspired her to organize the United for Syria Soccer Tournament this Saturday, July 23rd to raise money for refugees supported by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
(If you would like to register as a team or individual for this all ages tournament click here for details.)
The Muslim Link
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Queer activist Arsham Parsi took a risk when he left Iran and began to help other Iranians escape persecution for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
At a reading for his book Exiled for Love at the Toronto Public Library’s St. James Town branch, Parsi recalls the first time he attended Toronto’s Pride Parade 10 years ago, where he met an Iranian woman enjoying the parade.
He gave her his business card, hoping to get support from his own community.
“‘This is not us, this is them!’ she said and turned her face and walked away,” Parsi recalls. “I think I must have ruined her day because she couldn’t believe that Iranian LGBT exist.”
In search of a community
Instead of clustering in Iranian-populated communities, Parsi says he chooses to reside in Toronto’s LGBT-oriented enclave in the Church and Wellesley area. While Canada is embracing his sexuality, he says his own countrymen still deny him and other Iranian queers.
“[Former Iranian] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not the first one to say that we don't have homosexuals [in Iran],” says Parsi. “I clearly remember that lady saying, ‘We don’t have it.’”
Parsi was already active during his early 20s in providing support to gay men in Iran through an online community. Still in Iran, he planned his 22-year-old birthday party at home and invited all his gay friends, only to be warned by a relative that there would be a police raid.
He says he called off the party at the last minute and learned that the police were using the Internet to entrap gay men.
While he was never arrested, he knows other homosexuals in Iran who were. Of his gay friends who were taken into custody, some received 175 lashes on their backs, while others were tortured during interrogations.
Parsi says the immanent danger he felt every day was intolerant, forcing him to escape Iran. He told his family that he was going to study at a university in Cypress, but instead took a train to Turkey and sought asylum through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara.
From exile to acceptance
Parsi writes about being attacked with another gay Iranian refugee in Turkey while onlookers stood by. It took him a little over one year to finally receive refugee status and be accepted to Canada.
“Since arriving at the Canadian Embassy in Ankara, I had been treated with genuine openness and warmth,” Parsi writes in Exiled for Love. “The man smiled. I hoped that everyone in Canada would be like him.”
Upon arrival in Toronto in May 2006, Parsi says he, “inhaled deeply and felt the tears create wet paths across my cheeks . . . I felt as if I could breathe without pain.”
Parsi was 25 when he came to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee in the Refugee Assistance Program. During his first 12 months in Canada, he received financial assistance to cover basic needs – $604 a month to be exact.
“Not much, but it helped,” he says.
Parsi still receives threats from the Iranian community – something he says he deals with, but tries to ignore.
“I have professional relationships with the Iranian community, but I don't participate in their events because sometimes they make me very upset,” he explains. He says there are members of the Iranian-Canadian community who are intolerant and don’t support each other.
“I don’t care what they say,” says Parsi. “I continue with my work. It’s still risky, but I don’t like to admit it.”
Railroad of support
In 2008, Parsi founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). As of December 2015, the IRQR has helped more than 1,200 Iranians who identify as LGBT claim refugee status.
According to the UNHCR in Ankara, more than 26,500 Iranian refugees were registered as of May 2016. UNHCR has registered 1,177 refugees who identify as LGBT as of June 2016 – 1,046 being from Iran, representing gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.
Parsi and the IRQR are following 820 of the 1,046 LGBT refugee applications to help them go through UNHCR processes and eventually lead them to gain refugee status in Western countries. During the process, IRQR provides support and counselling to members of Iran’s LGBT community.
“I would accept the generosity and security Canada offered me. I would use it to continue my work for others back in Iran,” writes Parsi in Exiled for Love. “This wonderful country would be where I would live, but one day I would go home. Until that day came, I would be in exile.”
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Without saying anything, Farrah Khan hands out a clipboard with a piece of paper on it to each person in the room.
“Now, I want each of you start to draw what was in your head at 9 a.m. this morning,” she says. “When time is due, you’ll hand the clipboard to the person next to you and continue on another person’s drawing.” Khan then plays a song by Beyoncé on her iPhone.
Several participants, including Khan, finish drawing different parts of each other’s pictures before they are returned to the original artist. The result is a joint effort made by each member of the group to explore their fellow participants’ mindsets.
Politics in comics
It is the starting point for The Panel Is Political, a discussion on how to use comic books for social change, at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
The discussion is also led by Seemi Jamil, a youth group coordinator at the Afghan Women’s Organization in Mississauga, and Nicole Marie Burton, a comic book illustrator and founder and co-owner of Ad Astra Comix – North America’s first publisher dedicated to comics about social justice themes.
Jamil and Burton worked together early this year to develop a youth program that teaches immigrant and activist youth to draw and express their feelings. The program involved one-and-a-half hour sessions, held once a week for eight weeks.
“Nicole [Burton] comes by and does workshops with the youth groups and teaches them how to do graphic-novel style storytelling,” Jamil explains.
“We wrote a paragraph about a challenge we had to deal with in anonymity,” begins Burton, describing one of the group’s activities. She says the written paragraphs were ripped into pieces, folded, and mixed in a hat.
“Everybody drew out a story and had to tell it in a comic form,” she adds. “It was incredible to me how much could have been done with that,” says Burton about the activity.
Other activities focused on character design, practising different dimensions and shapes, and drawing about current events. She adds that there never seemed to be enough time in each session to meet the youth’s high level of interest in each activity.
“I was trying to get low-income youth groups to have some art form where they can talk about their own stories,” Jamil says. “They are interested in talking about what it is like to be low-income in Canada but also assimilated within society.”
An example of a political comic book that helps youth understand global events, says Jamil, is Persepolis – a graphic novel about the revolution in Iran.
“We’ve seen a large trend in youth groups trying to express themselves through different art forms as opposed to just writing,” she continues.
She says the program’s young female participants are of Afghani and Pakistani descent, and that the workshops focus on minority voices, people of colour, women of colour, and political situations all over the world.
Graphic novels, Jamil says, not only help immigrant and refugee youth to understand, but also to be able to learn how to tell, their own story. She stresses that for marginalized groups who do not have the same vocabulary or English proficiency as other Canadians, art can help them understand and share ideas.
Political comics gaining momentum
Burton started Ad Astra Comix in 2013 in Toronto. She says she is passionate about social justice and wants to see more political comics that touch on topics such as sexism, racism, colonialism, homophobia and transphobia.
Ad Astra Comix not only publishes, but also creates its own graphic novels, including its first full-length graphic novel Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, a collection of stories by Indian women about topics including harassment, race, class and political struggle.
Khan, the inaugural Sexual Violence Support and Education Coordinator at Ryerson University, has more than a decade of experience speaking about violence against women.
As a trauma counsellor, she has led several educational programs, including comic book projects, to help women express their feelings and fears through drawing.
In 2012, Khan put together a program to run a comic book workshop specifically for South Asian women. She says white comic book artists often portray South Asian women stereotypically.
The project resulted in a comic book called Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project, featuring stories and illustrations by South Asian women about violence and resilience in their lives.
The book was chosen by the Tahirih Justice Centre to be part of a tour to raise awareness about forced marriage in the United States.
One of the stories the book features, titled “Cage,” resulted in the escape of one of the program’s participants from her abusive family. Khan says the young woman was able to find help at a women’s shelter two cities away from her home during the project.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit