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Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

“Refugees Welcome”

A few dozen people gathered Sunday afternoon in St. John’s to rally in support of refugees arriving in Canada from Syria and other countries experiencing war and other life-threatening conditions.

Organized by the Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador, the event brought together people who supported the ideas of compassion, acceptance and helping others, regardless of their faith or origin.

“Love thy Muslim neighbour,” one person’s sign read. “Will trade racists for refugees,” said another.

The rally comes at a time when Canada is welcoming thousands of asylum-seekers from war-torn Syria and other parts of the Middle East, many of whom practice Islam. In recent weeks and months, however, some in Newfoundland and Labrador and other parts of Canada have expressed fear of the refugees in the form of bigotry, Islamophobia and racism.

The inhumane response recently prompted Newfoundland and Labrador’s Human Rights Commission Chair Remzi Cej, a former refugee himself, to write an open letter in the Globe and Mail to refugees coming to Canada, explaining to them the anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of newcomers.

“While most Canadians are happy you’re coming here, your refugee status is making some people distrustful of your identity. Some Canadians may think you are bringing violence with you, and don’t see that you are here exactly because you want to escape conflict,” he wrote. “Much of that comes from some Canadians’ inability to relate to your experience – some read the news and worry about 25,000 strangers coming to their country. They don’t know that since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States took in over 740,000 refugees, and yet of those, no one was even accused of domestic terrorism.”

Cej and his family arrived in Canada in 2000 after fleeing the violence in Kosovo. He pursued a university degree at Memorial University and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and then the chair of the province’s Human Rights Commission.

Another Kosovar who came to Canada during that time is Elbonita Kozhani, who published a Facebook post on Nov. 16 sharing her story and photos from Kosovo that depict the refugee crisis unfolding there at the time. The post has been shared almost 25,000 times.

Kozhani, a photographer, attended the rally in St. John’s and took these photos, which tell the rest of this story…

PHOTO ESSAY: “Refugees Welcome — St. John’s Against Islamophobia” (By Elbonita Kozhani)

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

Refugees Welcome Rally in St. John's -- Dec. 13, 2015

See more of Elbonita Kozhari’s work here. And visit the Social Justice Co-op N.L.’s new website for more info on their efforts.

Photo by Zachary Lentsch.

Could Canada’s refugee plan help terrorist groups?

Justin Trudeau’s freshly minted Liberal government has announced a modified plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. The plan claims 10,000 refugees will be brought to Canada by the end of 2015, and another 15,000 by March 2016. The plan will prioritize taking in families, women and children, and maybe those persecuted because of their sexual orientation, but could exclude single men who are unaccompanied by family members.

The first obvious problem with this plan is the idea that a gay Syrian man would voluntarily disclose his sexuality while living in an over-crowded refugee camp where people are already fighting for their basic survival. In many Islamic-majority countries being gay is not only considered a social and spiritual sin, it is illegala “crime” that often carries the punishment of imprisonment or a violent, and sometimes public, death. 

While Trudeau’s plan will no doubt help thousands of desperate Syrians, it does nothing to address the stigma and racism that is growing in the West and becoming dangerous. In fact, I would argue parts of this plan are worsening it by singling out a demographic and blatantly blanket labelling them as a security risk

A second problem is the apparent lack of consideration of the scarcity of options these single straight (or gay) men left behind in war torn cities and the refugee camps have. Much of Syria is close to, if not completely, demolished by artillery fire, aerial bombing and explosions from government and civil clashes since 2011. This, in a country where the unemployment rate was already nearing 40 percent in 2014

At this point in time, young, single men in the Middle East are extremely vulnerable, under-employed members of society — and a huge physical resource. Not to mention a coveted resource for organizations like ISIL and AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and the legions of rebel groups fighting in several countries across the region. When we leave this vulnerable segment of the population open to influence, radicalization, desperation and violence, when we have a way to at least intervene and help with the problem — who is to blame when that young man who is left behind by the global community turns to extremism?

 [Y]oung, single men in the Middle East are extremely vulnerable, under-employed members of society – and a…coveted resource for organizations like ISIL…

What shouldn’t be overlooked amidst all the rhetoric of terrorism being based in religion, is the evidence that many acts of terrorism and even extremist groups are often politically motivated — resistance to occupation and intrusive foreign policies. I  don’t think I need to remind anyone of the West’s circular ignorance and consequential influence in the quagmire that now makes up our abstract conception of “the Middle East”. 

These ideas are not new; there are several Canadian scholars who have been closely monitoring and studying them for a long time. Randall Hansen, director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, argued during a recent panel discussion that Canada should be taking in an upwards of 100,000 refugees. He said leaving millions of people, especially young men, in refugee camps without empowerment for too long can, in fact, make extremists out of people who, if given the proper opportunities, could become productive, peaceful new citizens of our country.

As for Canada’s responsibility, according to Lorne Dawson, a new religious movement and extremist expert with the University of Waterloo, the idea is to build trust in Muslim communities in Canada especially since they will be growing.

Young men coming here as part of families will need intervention, support, education, and integration — and to not be stigmatized and alienated at an age when it is already common to find yourself struggling with your identity. Dawson’s research claims that a struggle with identity and a need for guidance can be one of the leading factors in the radicalization of young men in Canada.

Refugee strategy should not further marginalize people

Finding a solution to our refugee crisis needs to be evaluated within the scope of humanitarianism and empowerment, as well as through a security lens, because these two factors go hand in hand. Almost a year ago, in February, the Brookings Institute, an independent, non-profit think tank in Washington, published an article called IDPs, refugees, and violent extremism: From victims to vectors of change.

In it Khalid Koser, Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, wrote that making the link between violent extremism and displacement may in fact force us to find better solutions for refugee crises.

Maria and three girls at the Syrian Refugee Camp in Akrê, Northern Iraq.

“It’s hard to imagine that the possibility of facing ISIL seems like a better choice than attempting immigration.” The author and three girls at a Syrian Refugee Camp in Akrê, Northern Iraq. Photo courtesy Maria Mulcahy.

“The risk of radicalization is especially heightened where IDPs and refugees find themselves in protracted situations: marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded,Koser wrote.

Conversely, he argues that this very link may also cause major problems in the movement and resettlement of refugees: “There is a real risk that focusing on displacement only as a cause or consequence of violent extremism will simply exacerbate the threat. It may become an excuse to restrict the entry of asylum-seekers, limit the rights of displaced persons, or force people home.”

In a way Koser’s words are slightly prophetic in how Canada is now handling its own refugee crisis, and why Trudeau’s plan needs to be carefully examined.

In my own experience working in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq, I have known several Syrian families who have since chosen to return to their hometownsrather than chance the risk and red tape of immigrationand face the stagnant torture of life in a refugee camp.

It’s hard to imagine that the possibility of facing ISIL seems like a better choice than attempting immigration.

Membership in terrorist groups often motivated by desperation

In 2014 I spent some time in Yemen working as an English teacher, though that time was cut short by a seemingly sudden and violent coup by the Houthi rebel group from the north of the country. 

Yemen is a country that has no refugee plan. In fact, I’d be surprised if Trudeau could point it out on a map. But like Syria, Yemen has been ravaged by civil war and violent clashes between rebels and government forces over the last 20 years. It has been terrorized by an extremist group — only in this case it’s AQAP, not ISIL. Since March over 5,000 civilians, including children, have been killed as Saudi Arabia has dropped bomb after bomb on the already decimated country in a vain attempt to replace the government all while the international community has looked the other way. 

Yemeni capital city Sanaa, much of which has been destroyed by Saudi bombing since March 2015. Photo by Maria Mulcahy.

Yemeni capital city Sana’a, much of which has been destroyed by Saudi bombing since March 2015. Photo by Maria Mulcahy.

In Yemen I’ve had two close friends, young men, who have been victimized or driven to desperation by a lack of choice and radicalization. One friend, who didn’t want to fightand couldn’t leave the countryresisted the rebel group as long as he could, but when he wouldn’t join them was arrested and has now been in jail since June. I have only had staggered communication with his brother, who remains in their neighbourhood, living in constant fear with the rest of his family. 

“My brother isn’t even critical of politics,” he told me during an online conversation last August. “Many people in our neighbourhood announced their joining of the Houthi group. These days there are no police, there is no law…and the Houthis do everything by armed force. My brother refused! He wouldn’t accept control of our neighbourhood by these people.”

And at the same time, I have one friend who chose to fight. A kind, smart, caring, generous, hopeful friend who left behind his degree in translating to fight against the rebels with Ansar Al-Sharia a branch of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Is my friend a terrorist? I have never thought so, even now, knowing what he is doing. Do I think he is honestly and sincerely fighting for an ideology he believes in? Absolutely not. I think he had few choices to begin with, I think he was desperate, and I think he made a choice out of desperation. The last time we talked he joked, darkly, in almost perfect English because he had been studying translating for three years before the violence erupted “I am 24 and have participated in 21 battles in my country. Maybe this my calling.

When I asked him if he felt the international community can help him, he replied, “They are pointless. We the people suffer the poverty and phobia. They dont. They take planes and flee when the first gun roars.” 

And he’s not wrong. Its hard to justify working in a place like Yemen or Iraq when every single system seems to be corrupt, broken, and you’re surrounded by violence. And believe me, the novelty wears off very quicklyif it ever existed in the first place.

At the heart of this is the fact that as human beings we need to feel like we have the opportunity to be successful, happy and free.

But where does this leave the young men who are left behind? Last week, following the death of Ron Hynes, I was reading Joel Hynes open and honest tribute to the Man of a Thousand Songs, and a part of that tribute resonated with me. He spoke of all the young men from small towns in Newfoundland who have found themselves in prison for countless reasons: drugs, violence, mental health issues, and so on. I am only drawing on my personal knowledge here, but surely unemployment and social and political under-representation has at least contributed to our own crisis. 

So I ask, what’s the difference between a young man from Newfoundland who can’t find a job, has no resources to help him, feels ignored by his government and turns to drugs or crime or a young Yemeni or Syrian man who similarly feels overlooked, ignored, poor, and desperate and turns to radicalization or extremism? 

Certainly, I’m inviting accusations of being a terrorist sympathizer or overlooking other major issues of security and the like but at the heart of this is the fact that as human beings we need to feel like we have the opportunity to be successful, happy and free. When you take that option away from people they become desperate, and then it becomes about survival. People will do anything to survive. It’s not a choice, it’s an instinct. 

It’s easy to treat human beings as objects, numbers, statistical groups and security risks – but every single individual has a story, like my two friends and the thousands of young Syrian men who will be left out of the chance at survival in the coming months. 

So when we are actively excluding an extremely vulnerable population from the opportunityof not only the chance at a better life, but the chance of survivalwe should not be at all surprised when they pursue alternate options. 

Photo by Alma Pasha.

“Je suis une Humaine”

It’s Nov. 17 and I am sitting in a cafe in downtown Erbil, across from the American Consulate. All I can see from my red leather booth are blast walls, 12 or 15 feet high, and a couple of Peshmerga soldiers huddled around a fire under a tarp, their AK-47s carelessly leaned against their chairs. It starts to rain and the fire almost goes out. One throws in a handful of crumpled-up newspaper and the fire surges out of what looks like an old wheelbarrow. They laugh and one claps happily. The fire goes out again, they do nothing, they watch. The embers blow in brilliant orange against the grey walls.

Where I am sitting was the site of a car bomb explosion just a few months ago, in April — a targeted attack on the U.S. Consulate.

Inside the cafe CNN drones on in the background. The horror of Paris just a few days ago is now a piece of bloody meat that has been thrown to a pack of wild dogs. News anchors, politicians and law makers are all baring their teeth, digging in their claws — who can claim the biggest, juiciest piece? Sound bytes of terror and freedom rhetoric. And what will we do about all those refugees?

The morning of Nov. 14 I was sitting in Amsterdam airport heading back to Iraq; my flight had been delayed due to wind and I hadn’t been able to check my email or the news since the evening before. I took advantage of the delay, and the free wi-fi, and switched on my iPad. I glanced at the daily New York Times update in my inbox and skimmed the words, “Paris Attacks”. Maybe it’s a symptom of living in the Middle East, but these days anytime I see the word “attacks” in headlines, I just know it’s coming from my part of the world.

I opened the news page and started reading.

Oh my god.

I immediately wrote my friend who works with me in Iraq and asked, “What the hell is going on in Paris?!”

“I donno dude, but I can tell you it’s not good,” she wrote back.

I kept reading, my head shaking in disbelief. 

When I finally landed at Erbil airport later that day it took longer than usual to weave through the city into my neighbourhood in the Christian district of Ankawa. While getting in and out of the airport is usually its own song and dance of hardened faces, hardened weapons, lifting trunks and arms, I noticed the city streets were lined with many more check points than usual. 

Paris flickered through my mind. 

When I finally got to my apartment, another message from my friend: “Be careful coming from airport — they stopped a bomber at a checkpoint today. Security is crazy right now.”

I had a thought that I’ve often had over the past two years of working on and off in the Middle East: Maria, what are you doing here? As usual, I shook it off.

 Fear is the oxygen that feeds the flame of terror, and by now we are so afraid … that we can’t even have the conversations that need to be had.

But I couldn’t shake the thought of Paris. I thought of the concert-goers, the restaurant patrons, many of whom probably wouldn’t dare leave their country to come to a place like Iraq. People who just wanted their quiet life, in their quiet neighbourhood, and to enjoy good music and good food. 

Then I thought of the people in Beirut, the people in Baghdad, who are graciously sharing their country with me, and I thought of how they don’t have a choice. The people who have been born in countries that only have one way out — and lately, that way is death. Death by violence, or death by a journey taken to another place that doesn’t even want you — a place that will beat you down, spit on you, treat you like a criminal. A place that will label you, segregate you, marginalize you and strip you of all your dignity. A place that thinks your very existence is a policy debate. So what if it’s not a physical death? People in countries like Yemen, Syria and Iraq will tell you that there are many things worse than death.

In an earlier column I wrote about Syrian refugees, I said there is nothing that separates you or I from a Syrian refugee except the grace by which we were born in a peaceful and free country. 

And now I find myself asking, what grace? It is a thin, cruel grace from where I am standing. There is no sense in grace, and there is no justice in religion.

Societies like Iraq and Syria are broken, in some cases far beyond repair. Terrorism only goes so far in a broken society before it craves something else to break — to spread like a virus, an unquenchable flame.

The day after I arrived back in Iraq I was sitting in my apartment talking to my mom, who was excitedly heading to her first football game in New York.

“Are you excited to finally see the Giants?” I asked her

“I am, but I am terrified to go to the stadium.”



Fear is the oxygen that feeds the flame of terror, and by now we are so afraid. We are so afraid that we can’t even have the conversations that need to be had. We are so afraid that we turn our fellow human beings—in desperate need of shelter from the storm—into monsters. We are so afraid that we close our borders, doors, minds and hearts. We are so afraid that we don’t even know who our enemy is. We are so afraid we turn our backs on our friends.

And so they are winning. Can’t you see that? They are winning. When we let fear rule our lives, they have won. It doesn’t matter where the bombs go off, it doesn’t matter what atrocity you pay more attention to, it doesn’t matter what you say or share on Facebook. You’re fighting the fire with fear. 

And so I don’t know what to say to the people of Paris, the people of Baghdad or the people of Beirut. I don’t know what to say because words aren’t enough, and because it seems the world is not ready to act. But I do have something to say to those who are spreading this fear, this disease, this fire. This inconsequential percentage of people, in a population of 1.6 billion Muslims, who seem to be constantly leaving us with unbearable consequences. A weight on the backs of those who are already carrying so much. I have to say this:

Dear “Islamic” fundamentalists,

I write it in quotations because you’re not Islamic. Nothing you do or say even remotely resembles the peaceful, compassionate and loving religion that so many of my friends and family call their own. Just like there is nothing spiritually justified about the acts of fundamentalists who claim other faiths. I hate you. You ruin lives. You disrupt progress and vision — you take homes, you separate families and you destroy faith. You breed distrust and corruption. My life has been forever touched and changed by your sordid reach that seems to know no boundaries. The impact on my life is nothing compared to the devastation you will wreak on the people I love and the devastation you have already caused those in every corner of the world. The ones who don’t get to walk away. You have given yourselves completely to evil. You can’t even hear your God, a voice that surely loves you and is calling you back. I have looked in the faces of his children who bare pain and fear and persevere in spite of your torture, but you don’t care. And now we are stuck — because of your bombs, your guns, your road blocks, your hate. Your hate has caused me to hate, which might make you think you’ve won, but you haven’t, and no matter where I am, I will not stop working against you. Because I have seen the power of love, vision and progress and it is stronger than you. I promise. It is stronger than you.

Sitting in the cafe, writing this column, this letter, I realized I kind of feel like those Peshmerga soldiers sitting across the street. When the fire goes out I try and keep it going — for the love of this part of the world, and the people I’ve met. Then something like Paris, or Beirut, or Baghdad happens, and the fire goes out again. I do nothing, I watch. The embers blow in brilliant orange against the grey walls.

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Photo by Douglas Sprott.

It’s not ‘either / or’

Labrador MP Yvonne Jones has received a great deal of criticism on social media for her proposal to use Canadian Forces Base 5 Wing Goose Bay as a processing centre for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.

Jones has said that Goose Bay, with its international runway and deep water port, would be a prime location to welcome those fleeing for their lives.

Many residents of Central Labrador took to social media to point out the fact that the area has a large housing shortage with many homeless people. Residents have been petitioning the base for years to open up unused military housing to help alleviate the housing crisis.

This is not an either/or scenario, it’s not a competition and there is no pot of money that can either go to the homeless or to refugees. We have the means and the ability to help these refugees, just as we have the means and abilities to help the homeless and the needy in our own home. There is no reason why we can’t help both.

Prime Minister Trudeau has announced a plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end. Retired Brigadier-General Gaston Cloutier, former leader of the 8 Wing Trenton Air Force base in Ontario, has proposed a plan to use Canadian military bases to welcome the large number of refugees, who will no doubt rely heavily on military support.

Yesterday’s horrifying attacks in Paris have scared some people from the idea that taking in refugees is a good thing, but this is just what terrorists are trying to do: scare us into being less than our best, scare us into being complicit in the slaughter of innocents who we could have helped, scare the world away from caring and compassion. As Dan Holloway wrote on Twitter, “Do you not realize these are the people the refugees are trying to run away from.”

 Helping newcomers adjust to life in Canada is investing in future Canadians who can enrich us culturally, contribute to the economy, and widen the beauty and depth of our diverse country.

While I completely understand people’s frustration with wanting to see empty houses in Labrador used for Labradorians, I must remind them that this is not a permanent solution, that the base will not become the new home to thousands of refugees. Jones’ plan would open up the base to refugees as we begin to determine where these people will be settled across the country. Some may stay in Labrador, but once they have moved on those housing units will be free once again.

On Nov. 9 the provincial government announced it will allocate $800,000 to open an emergency shelter pilot project in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. While this is not a long term solution to homelessness in Labrador, it is a start. There are many different ways to approach this important issue, and just because we give our attention to refugees does not mean our society is ignoring the homeless.

Some have raised security concerns as an issue — however, processing these people on military bases will be the safest way to determine if someone is a threat to this country or not. As a recent Toronto Star column pointed out, if ISIS wanted to attack Canada manipulating the refugee process would be a highly ineffective way of doing so. In fact, the bulk of refugees seeking asylum in Canada have been referred to by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency. 

Some people have brought up our looming $1 trillion debt, saying we can’t afford to do more than we are already doing. However, housing and processing a mere 25,000 refugees will not financially cripple this country. In fact, helping newcomers adjust to life in Canada is investing in future Canadians who can enrich us culturally, contribute to the economy, and widen the beauty and depth of our diverse country.

We are a multicultural nation, made of of peoples from across the globe. This is not the first time Canada has accepted refugees, and it will not be the last. We should help these people fleeing for their lives, just as we should help the homeless and the needy in our own communities.

We should not say “help our own first,” but instead, “let’s help everyone we can,” because that is the right thing to do.

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Photo by Graham Kennedy.

Cynicism and the cult of Trudeau

The other day I couldn’t take it anymore and made a saucy remark about all the people participating in the beatification of the new federal government.

“Look,” I said, “I’m wearing my optimism glasses and yet the world is exactly the same.”

One gets the impression that Trudeau is walking on water, but in fact it’s more the case that the bar has been set so low after the last decade and that a poorly trained chimpanzee would be just as popular (if not more so).

It’s something of a measure of the dysfunctional political culture in this country when people express their eternal devotion to the cult of Trudeau simply because the new government is doing what it said it would do, as though that’s something that should even deserve note, much less applause.

But then a friend said to me, “Don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to be snarky with some of the people who are finally paying attention to politics? Is it right to burst bubbles like that?”

I thought about it, and decided that disseminating pure cynicism is indeed perhaps unfair. Because when we’re talking about the direction and momentum of a ship as gargantuan as the Canadian state, it is true that small differences can be significant in the long run.

It is significant that the new government intends to hold an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women; it is significant that they intend to relocate 25,000 refugees by the end of the year; it is significant to have gender parity in cabinet; it is significant to reorganize and reassign departments to include a focus on climate change.

I am not debating that all this matters.

Photo courtesy Jon Parsons.

“Look! I’m wearing my optimism glasses and yet the world is exactly the same.” Submitted photo.

But what I am saying is that an ever-so-slight change of course is not significant in relation to the movement of this massive ship of state, because changing the window-dressing and presenting a benevolent face is really doing S-F-A for all the victims left in the wake. And just so you know, I’d be saying exactly the same thing if there was some twist of fate and the new government everyone was drooling over was led by the NDP.

Indigenous people will continue to be the subjects of violence and dispossession; Canadian militarism and the practices of Canadian corporations will continue to spread misery around the globe; women will continue to be treated like second-class citizens in this country; the tar sands will continue to produce oil and pipelines will continue to be built

It is not possible for any government to adequately address the oppression, exploitation, and systemic violence that it is by design intended to maintain. And if Trudeau and the Get Along Gang really wanted to commit some sociology we’d be seeing changes that are much more radical and much more real.

But my message today is really for the everyday supporters, the people that my generous friend pointed out to me are sincerely cheering for the new government. I don’t want to belittle your optimism, but just to say that when the day comes that cracks form please don’t go back into your shell to wait four more years for another political campaign.

Go join a grassroots group. Get involved in your community. Come and join us in the streets. It’s the only place real change has ever come from and the only place it ever will.

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Photo by Leena.

Barbaric culture talk

September feels like a lifetime ago.

Back then, Canadians joined in the international wave of grief at the images of young Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach after he, his mother and his brother drowned trying to escape Syria – one of more than 2000 Syrians to have died while fleeing their homeland. 

The public sense that Canada had faltered in a vital duty intensified with the news that Alan’s aunt, living in British Columbia,had appealed without success to the Immigration Minister to help get the family to Canada, having already depleted her material resources trying in an unsuccessful attempt to get another brother to safety here. 

This episode also highlighted the steady erosion of government support for refugees. The odds of being granted asylum have declined since 2006, when the Conservatives took power. We’ve now learned that the government suspended processing of Syrian claimants already cleared by the relevant United Nations and Canadian agencies so that the Prime Minister’s Office could vet their files. And groups trying to bring Syrian refugees to Canada are increasingly frustrated by unexplained delays.

More generally, claimants (including children) may endure prolonged detention, often in prisons, despite having had no criminal charges laid against them. The government has cut health care for refugees, a move condemned by doctors and ruled unconstitutional by the Federal Court but still being pushed by the government. 

Public discussion following Alan Kurdi’s death also reawakened debate over the Conservatives’ prioritization of “persecuted ethnic and religious minorities” in a region where 90 per cent of refugee claimants are Sunni Muslims. Critics, including Amnesty International, worry that this policy reflects an anti-Muslim bias, and contravenes UN protocols.

Alan Kurdi’s story also prompted the CBC and other media to give coverage to people’s memories of how 60,000 Vietnamese refugees were welcomed into Canada in the 1970s and 80s — and to their puzzlement over the apparent shift from that animating spirit.

In short, for a while, Canada seemed to be seized by a collective humanitarianism that reached far beyond the usual suspects. The tragedy of Alan Kurdi’s death seemed to bring out the best in people – not everyone, but very many people

Which makes it all the more disconcerting that division and fear have surged enough that Ricochet can ask: “Will racism win the election for Harper?”

Dead cats, covered faces and “culture”

By now, the “dead cat” strategy hardly needs explaining. In case you missed it, the idea — refined by Lynton Crosbie, the conservative wizard from Australia currently on retainer to our homegrown Conservatives — is that, caught in a losing battle your best move is to throw a dead cat on the table. People will forget your rogue senators or the spectre of recession and focus on the corpse amongst the dinner plates.

Enter the niqab

First, in another faceoff with federal judges, the Conservatives insisted they would keep fighting to make it illegal for women to swear the oath of citizenship while wearing the niqab. When this hard sartorial line seemed to boost their polls, they chased it with the promise that, if re-elected, they would follow the lead of Quebec and explore a ban on niqabs in the public service. Mind you, “we’re a society of openness and of equality,” Harper was quick to add

The cherry on the top was the Conservative proposal to create a dedicated phone line so that Canadians could inform on their neighbours’ “barbaric cultural practices,” enlisting us as citizen-spies in support of the government’s “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act”.

This kind of stuff begs parody. Some of the funnest examples include: #BarbaricCulturalPractices, the growing collection of protest songs starting with the incomparable “Harperman”, and Jon Keefe and Matthew Howse’s brilliant “Any Mummers ‘Lowed to Vote?

But it’s not all laughs on the hustings. Several Muslim women have been attacked since the niqab became an election issue and Muslim Canadians are reporting a new sense of vulnerability.

Barbaric culture talk

The word barbaric, so obviously negative, is easily taken apart as a political weapon. But why “cultural”?

The anthropological concept of culture is notoriously difficult. On the one hand, it reflects, in Alice Reich’s words, our shared human condition as both creators and creatures of the world. But if anthropologists have typically been interested in lived culture in all its complexity, anthropology is also complicit in culture’s utility as a “tool for making other,” as Lila Abu-Lughod argued in a 1991 essay. 

Likewise, Mahmood Mamdani diagnosed “culture talk” as a central feature in post-9/11 attempts to find links between Islam and terrorism. Cultural explanations tend to erase history he said, adding: “By equating political tendencies with entire communities … such explanations encourage collective discipline and punishment – a practice characteristic of colonial encounters.” They also imply that people’s “identities are shaped entirely by the supposedly unchanging culture into which they are born.” 

For her part, Abu-Lughod was struck by how authoritative voices used the “plight of Muslim women” to justify making war after 9/11– again at the expense of analysing the historical development of those contexts in which “Islamic extremism” flourished.

All of these elements are at play in “barbaric culture talk”, as partisan politics are played out in promises to rescue “women and girls” from “violent cultural practices” originating “elsewhere in the world” – notably Syria and Iraq. (See here, here and here.) 

Funny thing is, leaving aside women’s judicially-affirmed right to wear the niqab, the “practices” singled out by the Conservatives – “honour killing”, forced marriage and “gender-based family violence” among others – are already illegal in Canada, even if they are usually called by more prosaic names. This doesn’t stop them from accusing anyone who objects to their vocabulary of support for misogyny.

As for the niqab, Zunera Ishaq, the woman who faced off with the Conservatives over their citizenship oath policy, offers a pretty effective challenge to those who see veiling as a straightforward measure of women’s subordination. Indeed, for many Muslim women, far from isolating them, the veil enables participation in public life.

Good immigrant, bad immigrant

For all that these politics rest on a series of linked oppositions — us and them, civilized and barbaric, Canadian and foreign, with us or against us — the Conservatives insist they are not targeting Muslims as such. Rather, they claim to be speaking for “Canadian values”, including those of “the overwhelming majority of Muslims, moderate Muslims.” That is, as Mamdani put it, they are pitting “good Muslims” against “bad Muslims.” The burden is then on individual Muslims to prove that they are on the right side of the dichotomy for life in Canada.

In any event, if comments onMarianne Thuy Nguyen’s reflective column on gaining asylum in Canada in 1975 are anything to go by, the distinction is lost on some people. 

“You embody what it means to be Canadian,” wrote one person, before adding: “refugees from Asia (even communists) are infinitely different from violent illiberal Islamic jihadis. Canada is correct to take a cautious approach with respect to Syrian refugees.” For another: “a Syrian Muslim is not a Vietnamese Christian and the Asian Values do not necessarily reflect Syrian values. Asians prize education, Syrians restrict education by gender. Ask Sweden, Denmark, Finland, etc about their experience with Middle East Refugees as they face exploding Social Costs and massive increase in violent crimes.” Still another predicted: “You assimilated well here, they won’t. All we will bring here is the threat of ISIS … infiltrating in the country and they are an actual threat to our lives.”

Political leadership

I moved to Northern Ireland to start doctoral research during a period of massive unrest, as unionist and loyalist supporters of the Orange Order protested a police ban on a parade through the Catholic area. As Feargal Cochrane observed, while unionist leaders of the day “talked of civil and religious liberty … their supporters prevented people getting to work, highjacked vehicles, intimidated Catholics out of their homes and destroyed property.” 

Then, loyalist paramilitaries murdered Michael McGoldrick, a 31-year-old Catholic. Easy pickings because of his job driving a taxi, McGoldrick was killed for no reason other than his religion. Unionist political leaders rushed to condemn the killing and deny all responsibility for it. McGoldrick’s father saw things differently. Politicians’ “fire and brimstone speeches have featured too much in this situation,” he said. “Their loose talk has cost this innocent young fellow his life.”

I am not saying that Canada is about to be engulfed by widespread sectarian violence and murder. But many Canadian Muslims are feeling apprehensive. At times like this, I think about my late friend Barbara McCabe, who used to say that a true commitment to human rights means defending the rights of those who are not like you, even those you might consider an enemy. 

That is also a pretty good test of political leadership, no more so than when it might be a vote-loser for your party. 

Think about that when you listen to politicians respond to attacks on Muslim women by claiming that, in saying the niqab contravenes “Canadian” values, they are standing up for Muslim women’s rights. Think about it when, instead of facing down public antipathy to Muslim refugees, they invoke “security” and talk about the risk of open “floodgates.

Finally, think about it when you ask why Canada responded so differently to Vietnamese refugees than to Syrians. Then remember that, despite anxieties about potential security risks in 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark and key cabinet ministers reminded of Canada’s historic refusal of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, determined that we would not be ruled by fear.

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Photo by Leisha Sagan.

It could have been so different

As a parent, I am so so lucky.

My tiny person, just a few months shy of three years old, is asleep in his bed. He is cuddly, he is warm and cozy, blankets atop him, golden curls slightly sweaty and coiled, sleeping soundly, occasionally reaching out for snuggles and nums. We go to bed and he says he “Can’t wait! Can’t wait for nuggles and nums! Can’t wait for Mommy!”

He is safe. He is warm. He has food. He has shelter. He is loved.

I am so so lucky.

As a parent, the images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi awash on the shore burned into me. As a parent, I cried for the loss of this tiny boy — him and his brother. I cried for the loss his family is experiencing and grieving, the future that will never be known. It’s a loss that as a parent, it’s too much to even imagine. 

Truly, unimaginable.

As a parent, I am overwhelmed with desire and want and need to help all of these people — the tiny people and the big people alike, who are struggling to come here, to go anywhere, for a better life.

It’s a situation that hits close to home

My tiny boy comes from a family of immigrants. He is descended from refugees, or “displaced people”, as they were called back then. I am the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants. My grandparents made the long journey to Canada after World War II, originally coming from what was then Yuguslavia, and the Ukraine. They left hometowns that no longer exist, that were destroyed just days after they left during the war.

My father was born in Vienna, in a hospital, after my grandparents had been living in a refugee camp following the war. In the years between my father’s birth and his family’s immigration to Canada when he was eight years old, their family grew to include even more children as they moved through France, trying to find their way to Canada.

It took them that many years to get here, years that included the births of more children and many, many moves, all the while trying to find a home, trying to find a place to simply be. Eventually they were sent to British Columbia, and the rest is history. 

They worked hard and made a life. The family did not know English when they arrived; my father started school while my grandparents worked to make a living. My grandparents owned their own businesses and contributed to their town and to the economy. They had more children. They now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

To look at my father, to look at me, at my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and my child, one would likely never even question or ask where we are from. They might not ask our history. They just see us all as contributing persons, as “Canadians”.

It could have been so different though.

My grandmother had a brother that stayed in Germany; we have an extensive extended family in Germany now. Because of injuries sustained during the war, he was unable to leave, unable to get the required papers to immigrate. He did not meet the immigration requirements of the time.

How different it could have been. So very different.

It would have only taken one person to say “no” to my grandparents, one piece of missing paperwork, a lack of adequate funds — so many factors that could have intervened in our family’s fortunate outcome.

But because of their journey, because of their luck, because of the system at the time, because of so many things, my tiny person is asleep in our bed, here in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador — a place that I am grateful to call my home. A place that I am in love with.

There are naysayers who say we shouldn’t allow refugees into Canada. They question where they are from, what their politics are, what their ideologies are. They ask how they might contribute to our economy, where they will get their money from, and whether they think they should have access to healthcare.

 They forget that we’re a country made up of immigrants, from all over the world. And they forget that people are dying.

But they forget that we’re a country made up of immigrants, from all over the world.

And they forget that people are dying.

People like that tiny three-year-old boy.

Alan Kurdi is not the first child to have drowned on a journey to a better life, or to have died due to lack of access to medication or healthcare. Or to have died from violence. Or starvation.

Because they all just want a better life. It’s really what we all want — each of us, here in our happy homes, our safe places. We are all simply dreaming and working for a good life each and every day.

How can we be so insensitive to forget that need in other people, especially those who are being subjected to war?

How can we be so selfish to question their motives? Whatever brings people here — whether it’s war and violence, job opportunities, or simply wanting to try a new place — to leave one’s home is no small thing. To leave the place where you were born, where you grew up, is no small thing.

To leave somewhere because you no longer have a home, to try to seek out a new home, a better life, is an experience beyond what most of us can imagine.

And yet, if it were not for the courage of my grandparents to seek out a new home, to try to make a home and build a sense of place and a new life for their family, I would not be here today. My tiny person most certainly would not be here today.

If only we—the people, the politicians, the policy-makers—could truly get in touch with our deepest compassions and our own humanity, just a little, what a difference we could make in someone’s life.

What value we could add to our country—to our homes and our lives—if we welcomed people, as our family was welcomed to Canada only decades ago.

So here I am, snuggling my tiny person, so very, very grateful for his existence, for his continued safety, for the gift of him. Truly what a gift it is — my life, his life, our lives here together.

It could have been so very different.

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