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Why Canada embraces Syrian refugees, while US is still wary

Shifts in political thought

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fulfilled his campaign pledge to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees, in contrast with the US. Behind the welcome is a national ethic of welcoming the victims of the world's conflicts – and the tragic fate of a toddler.

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    The first planeload of Syrian refugees is greeted by Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) on their arrival at the Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ontario, on Dec. 11.
    Mark Blinch/Reuters
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On a chilly Canadian night in December, the country’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, greeted the first planeload of Syrian refugees to reach Canadian soil under his open-armed refugee policy with handshakes, hugs, and warm puffy coats.

“You are safe at home now,” a beaming Mr. Trudeau told the deplaning Syrian families.

Trudeau’s welcome party at the Toronto airport that night reflected a campaign pledge he’d made in the fall campaign to open Canada to up to 25,000 Syrian refugees within months – and to double that to 50,000 by the end of 2016.

But behind that campaign pledge was something deeper, a national ethic and tradition of welcoming the victims of the world's conflicts that contrasted sharply with the much more modest goals and contradictory – and even vociferously negative – responses to Syrian refugees in the United States.

When Trudeau visits the White House Thursday on a state visit, President Obama might want to ask him why Canada was able to meet Trudeau’s target of greeting 25,000 Syria refugees in just two months – when Mr. Obama’s comparatively diminutive pledge to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year (US population: 10 times that of Canada) was met with a chorus of outrage from largely Republican governors and anti-immigration groups.

In Canada’s case, the bighearted welcome reflects a number of both intrinsic and practical factors: Canadians generally pride themselves on an openness to the world and a desire to share their national good fortune with the world’s less fortunate. On a practical level, Canada has for decades welcomed refugees under a three-tiered national system of public, private-sector, and individual responses.

“The government of Canada has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to those who need it the most by providing refuge to thousands of the world's most vulnerable people,” says Faith St. John, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada in Vancouver.

The system includes a “Private Sponsorship of refugees” program, unique in the world, under which Canadian organizations and even groups of as few as five adults can essentially adopt refugees, taking on the financial, social integration, and other responsibilities of the new arrivals’ first year in Canada.

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“I’d really say it’s in our national DNA to stand up and respond to these situations of upheaval and humanitarian crisis around the world,” says Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613, a grassroots coalition of individuals and nongovernmental organizations advocating refugee resettlement in Ottawa (area code 613, thus the name).

“We see ourselves as a nation of immigrants, we can empathize with people in these situations,” she adds. “It’s also important that we’ve responded to these refugee crises for a long time, going back at least to the Vietnamese in the ’70s, so Canadians tend to say, ‘We can do this, we’ve done this before many times.’ ”

Not that she would say Canada has done a perfect job of welcoming and integrating successive groups of refugees. Somali refugees in particular, who arrived in large numbers in the 1980s, have had a particularly hard time fitting in and prospering, Taylor says.

At the same time, references to Canada’s traditional openness to refugees aren’t the full story behind the recent open door that contrasts so sharply with the experience to Canada’s south.

There’s another key factor: It would be impossible to explain the outpouring of support and compassion that allowed Canada to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees in a matter of weeks without taking into account the impact on Canada’s national psyche of the death of Alan Kurdi. Alan was the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean with his family last September and whose body washed up on a Turkish beach – to be famously photographed as he was picked up and cradled by a Turkish police officer.

The photo of a lifeless Alan face down in the sand, his little tennis shoes carefully tied on his feet, shook the world. But for Canadians it became personal when it was learned that his family had relatives in British Columbia and had been trying to legally immigrate to Canada before giving up in desperation and taking to the sea.

“Before you heard the argument that Syrian refugees posed a security threat, or that they were mostly bogus claimants on our national wealth – but then Alan Kurdi died,” says Ms. Taylor. “When it became known that his family had been trying to get to Canada, it was like a national punch to the gut,” she adds. “People were saying ‘That’s not Canada,’ that if we had been true to our values the Kurdi family wouldn’t have got in that dingy and Alan would be preparing for nursery school in B.C.”

That Alan’s story struck Canadians in the midst of a national campaign turned refugees and Canada’s continued openness to them into an election issue. Trudeau seized on the issue by reaching deep into his Liberal Party’s roots as the party of immigrants, and he appealed to the country’s welcoming tradition to win support for his own election by championing his now-famous plan to quickly receive 25,000 Syrian refugees.

And Trudeau won in a smashing victory – suggesting to some Canadians that it was the candidate’s call to his countrymen to open their doors and their hearts to Syrian refugees – the "this-is-who-we-are" pitch – that has made a decisive difference both in the election and after it.

“Before the election, we thought we were going to have to be a pressure group pushing the government to do more,” says Taylor, whose organization only got going in October. “But instead it’s been the government challenging groups like us to organize and do more.”

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