The Times recorded an interview with Ken Gehrels, a volunteer with the group Refugees in North Grenville [RING] which was posted on our Facebook page and website during the week. It was a straightforward conversation about the work RING are doing to raise sponsorship money to bring two Syrian families to North Grenville, but it created a bit of a stir on social media. At first, I was really disappointed with some of the comments posted under the video: I didn’t really think that the F-word was necessary to describe how one resident thought we should deal with the situation.
But others raised the valid question of why we were trying to bring “foreigners” here, when we have homeless people of our own to take care of. Others wondered why their taxes should be used to pay refugees to come and live here. These may not be admirable attitudes for many, but they are probably more widely held than people are prepared to admit. We have written about this before in the Times, but as the day approaches when these two families arrive in our community, perhaps we need to have a more open discussion. The last thing we need, or want (I hope) is to have those critical comments thrown into the faces of children and their parents as they try and adapt to living in exile, far from their homeland and everything that is familiar and comforting.
On the one hand, the negative comments seem irrelevant. After all, why can’t we do both: take care of those in need among us, and help two families to escape the terror of war and the endless, deadening hopelessness of a refugee camp? Are we so lacking in compassion and assets that both are impossible? Let’s be honest: are we really trying that hard to deal with poverty, unemployment or homelessness in North Grenville? Are these efforts taking up so much of our time, energy and money that we have nothing left for two families with nowhere else to go?
Much of the cost of bringing these few people here will be borne by funds raised by RING, with support from the federal government. Yes, that means tax money. In my opinion, that is a far better way to spend my taxes than using the money for bombs and fighter planes to go all the way to Syria in order to destroy the homes there. We, like it or not, have played a part in forcing people out of their homes and out of their countries. We did that, we were told, as a kind of self-defense: if we didn’t bomb them there, they would come and bomb us here.
Without going into the morality or political necessity of that whole situation, let’s get back to those two families. If they are being considered for admission to Canada, they may have been languishing in a refugee camp for some time now. This means that they were forced to flee from those who threatened their lives, and the lives of their children, because they were seen as enemies of ISIS. Doesn’t that make them “allies” of Canada? If they are persecuted by ISIS, if they fled rather than join terrorists, does that not make them the kind of people we would want here?
There is no question about it, however: there are people in North Grenville living very close to poverty, many of them with jobs. It is hard to know how many are actually homeless, but there are certainly some who are in danger of losing their homes. Demand on food banks has grown considerably. Thrift stores are not likely to go out of business soon. People are being forced to choose between heating and eating. What are we doing about that? Will we be doing less if we have to “pay” for two more families to come and live here? Is that really the choice we have to make?
I believe the real choice is whether we’re prepared to help whoever is in need, whether we are even prepared to find out how many there are in our community who are living lives of silent desperation. Service groups are finding it hard to attract new members. Voluntary organisations are withering for lack of people willing to leave the TV at night and get involved in their community. These, with the churches, are the groups trying to be good neighbours. If you are part of that effort, then I will listen to you complaining about Syrian families coming to live here at your expense.
The universal experience Canada has had throughout its history is that immigrants contribute more than their share to this country, given the chance. After all, they know better than anyone what a great country this is, and how to value the society we have made together. They usually take advantage of the opportunity Canada provides to work hard, pay taxes, give back. That may not be the image some people have of immigrants, but it is an accurate one. Let’s give them that chance here. Remember what they have gone through to get here. Immigrants are also emigrants. They have left somewhere to get here. As refugees, they did not even have a choice about leaving. They are exiles from their homes and society, they have seen everything destroyed around them. They have lost their past. We can give them a future. Isn’t that the Canadian way?