Welcome | Pamela Rojas | 2011 | Mural on exterior of Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre

Photo by Selina Vesely.

Paying It Forward

Lessons learned from Syrian resettlement can prepare us for the future waves of climate change refugees.

Like a lot of people, I cried when I saw the photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean during his family’s attempt to find safe harbour from the horrors of the Syrian civil war. My sorrow, my grief was real, and I was moved to tears … and then to action. 

Like a lot of people, I cried when I saw the photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean during his family’s attempt to find safe harbour from the horrors of the Syrian civil war. My sorrow, my grief was real, and I was moved to tears … and then to action. 

My response was not unique. Many Canadians channelled their grief, sorrow and tears into positive action, including record monetary donations and an unparallelled commitment to settle Syrian refugees. By late August, Statistics Canada showed 29,970 Syrians had arrived in Canada.

Waterloo Region is one of six Ontario reception centres, and about 1,275 Syrian refugees have settled in our region since the fall of 2015. 

The response, quite frankly, is impressive: Waterloo Region accommodated almost 4.74 percent of the 29,970 Syrians arriving in Canada into a community with only 1.4 per cent of the nation’s population. This ability to punch-above-the-weight reflects a tradition of service and a groundswell of urgent, citizen-led engagement.

Arif Virani, a Toronto MP and the parliamentary secretary to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum, praised Waterloo Region’s efforts during a recent funding announcement. “That’s a testament to this region and its capacity and its willingness to participate in this project and welcome newcomers,” said Virani, himself a refugee who arrived in 1972.

The event itself was noteworthy. The $175,000 in funding for affordable housing for Syrian refugees came from the Welcome Fund: a partnership between the Community Foundations of Canada – and Manulife, CN and General Motors.

The Welcome Fund gift formed only part of the funding that has been raised to support Syrian Newcomers to Waterloo Region. Local community foundations stepped forward to handle the financial contributions from the community and formed The Immigration Partnership Fund for Syrian Newcomers. A matching program was announced by The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation. Leveraging both The Foundation’s Community Fund and fund holder support, the result was over $693,000 in donations raised to support the settlement of Syrian newcomers in Waterloo Region.The region’s coalition of the good-hearted includes long-time community-supporting stalwarts like the Mennonite Central Committee and the K-W Multicultural Centre. But it also includes several new organizations that came together, fundraised and helped Syrian families make Canada their new home. 

Meanwhile, the Mennonite Central Committee is partnering with other organizations, including Wilfrid Laurier University, the City of Waterloo and the City of Kitchener. The Kitchener Neighbourhood Association, Reception House (Waterloo Region), Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support, Uptown West Neighbourhood Association and Erb Street Mennonite Church are a few of the groups that have held information sessions and/or encouraged private sponsorships. Organizations like the YMCA have opened their door to the newcomers by expanding support, access and settlement services. 

It certainly is praise-worthy to see the efforts put forth by an eclectic mix of community organizations. But as you dig deeper, you see that Waterloo Region has a long history of extending a hand to refugees, the dispossessed and the displaced. 

Not all of that history is good, mind you; there have been periods of injustice and intolerance. In fact, as this issue goes to press, police were investigating a possible hate crime after racist graffiti defaced a street muralist’s work in a civic art project. 

But there’s been a lot of good done over the years – and lots of reasons why the soil seems to be extra nourishing for newcomers, fuelled by a generosity of time, energy, money and spirit.

Roots of generosity

Much of this generosity is rooted in an understanding that only comes from experience. For some, that experience is centuries old, but remains ever-present. Many of Waterloo Region’s first immigrants were German Mennonites from Pennsylvania who fled to Canada in the 1700s and 1800s in the aftermath of the American War of Independence, and in search of greater religious freedoms. 

The legends of their Conestoga wagons linger on in civic names and city crests. Their barn-raising ethos of communal support extends far beyond local barns and, thanks to the influence of Mennonite-affiliated founding civic leaders, continues to imbue a “we can do it” mentality when it comes to fostering more effective collaboration between government, organizations and citizens to combat urgent crises, far away and close to home.

Our roots of generosity reach even further back, as we must acknowledge the Anishnawbe, Neutral and Haudenosaunee peoples, whose traditional territory Waterloo Region is built upon. 

For others, that experience is more recent. The individuals and groups represent first-, second- or third-generation immigrants – and they are equally eager to give back and get involved. The Immigration Partnership is one of the more recent  groups, founded in 2011 with a conviction that successful settlement and integration is a mutually beneficial process that involves both immigrants and the broader community engaging in a process of learning and inter-relatedness. Their definition of “immigrants” includes people who immigrated a long time ago or more recently, refugees and refugee claimants, immigrants who are and are not Canadian citizens.

Others include Frances Tse, a supporter of The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation, who immigrated to Canada in 1975 from China. She shares how her experience informs her volunteerism: “The major challenge [was] a culture shock, and people. At the time, we did not have many ethnic groups and we had a really hard time establishing [here]. If I can help others overcome this challenge that I faced, then I’m repaying everyone who ever helped me in my worst moments.” 

When Mo Elgadi came across a volunteer opportunity in December 2015, he never could have imagined the ripple effect it would have. He first started helping Syrian newcomers in Waterloo Region by volunteering his Arabic language skills to help families adjust to their new lives in Canada.

“Watching this humanitarian crisis unfold, I felt compelled to help in some way,” Elgadi says. “For me, this is about people helping people in our community. Being a first-generation Canadian myself and coming from a war-torn country, I could relate to the challenges facing the refugees from Syria.”

I deeply appreciate and highly commend such a compassionate leadership and generosity as shown by the Canadian government in accommodating 25,000 refugees.”
– United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (2016)

His passion for this cause soon drove him to think bigger. Elgadi, a manager in quality control engineering at the Cambridge Toyota plant, garnered support from senior leadership at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada. The result? A donation of $26,000 to the Immigration Partnership Fund for Syrian Newcomers held at The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation.

The journey of Canada – and Canadians – in moving from callously refusing to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler (and near-certain death) in the past to our new role in providing compassionate leadership in welcoming refugees from the Syrian civil war is the story of a migration of national consciousness. We’ve moved from a mindset of exclusion, fear and xenophobia to a willingness to embrace our responsibilities as a people and as a country, one blessed by abundance, peace and prosperity, to look after those less fortunate in times of dire need.

And when we look at the collective work of governments, groups and citizens across Waterloo Region – and come to appreciate their Herculean response to helping settle Syrian refugees – we can learn from their experiences, emulate their intentions and replicate the actions (and action plans) to assist all communities in better welcoming newcomers, regardless of the circumstances of their arrival. 

The collective response was formal, structured and top-down – and also informal, eclectic and grassroots-up.

There will be climate refugees

However, as gracious as we Canadians – and the residents of Waterloo Region in particular – have been in opening our arms and our hearts to Syrian refugees, another pressing concern looms in our near future: climate refugees. And we need to be prepared.

Refuge Magazine, an interdisciplinary journal based in Toronto, estimates that by 2050 about 200 million people will be forced out of their homes due primarily to the impacts of climate change like rising sea levels, droughts, extreme weather and disasters not yet foreseen. As seen by the government of Kiribati’s recent purchase of land in Fiji, these impacts are already happening.

If these projections hold true, Canada, as a country with ample space and resources, will become one of the most desirable destinations for climate refugees from around the globe. And yet, in spite of such high projections, the lack of existing Canadian regulations and infrastructure is truly alarming. 

A 2013 report from the Library of Parliament states that the “lack of provision in Canada’s current immigration system for the admission of people displaced for reasons directly related to climate change is consistent with international law, which does not recognize such people as refugees.” 

The current federal government website identifies refugees as “people who have fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution, and who are therefore unable to return home.” This excludes climate refugees. 

Regulations like these need to change. 

As the Library of Parliament report concludes, “Best estimates suggest that hundreds of millions of people could be on the move in the coming decades due to the impacts of climate change. Canada has an opportunity now to plan an orderly and effective response to the coming crisis.”  

We know that climate change is a real and present threat whose impacts can (and in all likelihood will) make it impossible to return to homes submerged by rising sea levels or abandoned due to extreme drought and heat conditions. We know there are more and more climate refugees each year. We know these people need help. And we know we can help. 

The Canada we know today owes its identity to everyone who has called this land home. From the Aboriginal peoples, to the millions of migrants who came from all over the world, each adding to the mosaic of this nation.

We have a moral obligation to help our fellow humans in a time of significant need. Climate change and refugee migration are a twinned and looming concern. We need to incorporate this into our conversations. It needs to be integrated into our regulations – locally and globally. 

Two of the underlying causes of the Syrian civil war are drought and famine, both directly related to the impacts of climate change. In many ways, little Alan Kurdi is not only a symbol of the strife in Syria, but also of the dangers of climate change – an innocent martyred like some canary in a coal-mine to awaken us all to the coming dangers.

We Canadians have a capacity to help and the Region of Waterloo has demonstrated the power of collaborative action. The power of many coming together and helping out is much more than we can possibly imagine.  

We are not dealing with refugees from climate change yet. I don’t know when we will or who will be responsible for creating and implementing a plan to address this urgent concern. But I do know I’m ready to help – and I’ll be helped by the lessons I’ve learned from the Region of Waterloo and its work to welcome 1,275 Syrian refugees within the last year.

Semini is a graduate of the Environment and Resource Studies program at the University of Waterloo and a former A\J editorial intern.