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Canada and Syrian Refugees

Refugees welcomed in CanadaAyman Al-Yassini, former Coordinating Member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and RSD Expert, gives an account of Canada’s successful refugee resettlement programme.

It was a cold December day in 2015 when the first Syrian family arrived at Pearson airport on a flight from Istanbul, Turkey. There were hundreds of well-wishers, including the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Ahmad and his family of four were in daze as they did not know what to expect—but being greeted with Canadian flags and a smiling minister was beyond their wildest expectation. They are among the lucky ones who have escaped the universe of refugees–Lebanon has 1.2 million Syrian refugees—one in five people in the country. Jordan has over 650, 000 Syrian refugees, amounting to 10% of the population, and Turkey have about 2.5 million Syrian refugees (79 million).

Ahmad and his family are part of 25, 000 Syrian refugees that the Liberal government promised to resettle within a year. In cooperation with the UNHCR and other national and international agencies, Canadian officials identified, processed, transported, and resettled the refugees. Thousands were airlifted from Istanbul, Beirut and Amman.  Priority was given to the most vulnerable who are low security risk.   Most of the refugees are sponsored by the government of Canada.  They are amongst the most vulnerable. Some have large families, young children, and little education.  Others are university educated, from urban areas, and have an impressive work experience.  An additional category of refugees is the private sponsored, which includes individuals who are sponsored by the private sector, family members who are already in Canada, or community organizations. The sponsoring group covers living expenses for a year, and works with the refugee to secure employment and integration.

A year has already passed since the arrival of Ahmad, whose children are already in school, and he succeeded in finding a job at a local bakery.  Although there are many success stories, the resettlement of Syrian refugees is not without its challenges. For example, there are difficulties in finding adequate housing to accommodate large families.  The integration of refugee children is challenging as many were out of school for the past few years.  Refugee resettlement initiatives, including housing, medical and social services is dependent on government funding which in some instances may not be readily available. The recognition of diplomas and professional certification poses an additional challenge in securing adequate employment.

On the whole, the success of the program to date is phenomenal.  Resettlement initiatives are supported by communities and the private sector across the country. For example, Ontario businessman Jim Estill spent $1.5 million to privately sponsor Syrian refugee families in Guelph, Ontario. Syrian community businesses launched initiatives to provide training and hire refugees. Ethnic communities, such as the Vietnamese, are sharing their best practices. Lifeline Syria, a partnership organization, brought together community, all levels of government and the private sector to sponsor refugees. Universities and colleges established local committees to assist refugees.

The story of Syrian refugees in Canada is still unfolding. There are challenges and many opportunities. The decision to resettle refugees reflects who we are as individuals and as communities. What is important, though, is not to forget the other refugees who continue to struggle for their survival.

Dr Ayman Al-Yassini will be part of an expert panel discussion will be held at 7pm (arrive for 6.45pm) on Friday 4 November in the Buchanan Lecture Theatre. Admission will cost £5 and tickets can either be bought on the door, or in advance. Proceeds will be used to provide relief to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

This is a cross-society event organized by Amina, Save the Children, UNICEF, The History Society, Foreign Affairs and The Modern Languages Department.

The event aims to enhance understanding of the complexities of the situation in Syria. Professor Raymond Hinnesbusch, Director of Syrian Studies at St Andrews, will be chairing the discussion. Dr Jasmine Gani, lecturer, Alasdair Gordon-Gibson, an experienced delegate who worked for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Damascus this summer and was head of logistics and mission for the International Red Cross for 20 years, Idrees Ahmad, journalist, will also be speaking.

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