As furor over refugees grips US, Canada offers a different way to integrate

Even as the Trump administration closes US borders to some refugees, Canada's decades-old private refugee sponsorship program is getting another look by nations struggling with their own influxes of migrants.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP/File
Syrian refugees step off a bus into a hotel after arriving on the first government-arranged flight into Toronto's Pearson International Airport in December 2015.

As refugees from the Middle East were turned away from the US over the weekend after President Trump signed an executive order to root out “radical Islamic terrorists,” the Hajji family was nestled cozily in their rowhouse across the American border in Ottawa.

For the Syrian refugees who were welcomed by Canadian sponsors last February, life is not easy. The parents are struggling to learn English and find jobs to support their four children, especially as the end of a 12-month aid package nears. As with all of those displaced by war, they carry the burdens of memory and loss. But least of their worries is Canada telling them to go back home.

The Canadian narrative around migration, especially for refugees, stands in stark contrast to that under Trump’s America. It is not immune to hate, witnessed by a mass shooting Sunday night at a mosque in Quebec City that officials are calling terrorism. A white Quebecois man is being held as a suspect in the attack.

But the differing perspectives at the top were crystallized with a single tweet from Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this weekend as foreigners were trapped in American airports and turned home: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

The message quickly trended, but this is not just a one-off. Rather it’s part of a mentality that has set Canada apart in the era of populist politics sweeping the West. As Americans have voted in Trump on a nativist and divisive platform, Europeans have watched populist parties feed off of resentments that have surged as Muslims have sought refuge across the continent.

Canada’s politics have been far less fraught. The mindset has been shaped by geography and history, exceptions that make it hard to serve as a model. But a decades-old private refugee sponsorship program, which has helped the Hajjis settle in their new home in Canada's capital, is getting another look by nations around the world struggling with their own influxes of migrants.

At its core, the sponsorship model serves to give Canadians a stake in the integration process, says University of Ottawa law professor Jennifer Bond.

“It’s this amazing ripple effect, where it’s not just the sponsors – it's the sponsor who asks their neighbor if they have a crib they can borrow, or asks someone to take their newly arrived refugee child to a swimming lesson, or the grocery store that suddenly has requests for different foods,” she says. “You're accessing basic compassion, in a way that can overcome negative and fearful political messages.”

“It's really personal,” says Ms. Bond, who is also a key organizer for the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative. “It becomes something in your community.”

'We were home'

In an ongoing airlift that has brought roughly 40,000 Syrian refugees to Canada since November 2015, half have been placed with private sponsors in more than 350 communities across the country.

The sponsorship program dates back to 1979, when citizens, churches, and community groups signed legal agreements with the government to allow in 60,000 Indochinese “boat people.” But the strife in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East has focused new attention on it. In December, the Canadian government shared best practices with governmental and charity representatives from eight countries, including Britain and Germany.

In Canada, sponsors in groups of five or more pledge to take care of a refugee family’s financial and emotional needs for a year, paying out-of-pocket for housing, food, clothing, and living expenses, while helping the newcomers adjust to Canadian life. The government earmarks the general cost as $12,600 (Canadian; US$9,600) for a single person, to 27,000 (US$20,600) for a family of four.

To date, Canadians have sponsored more than 275,000 refugees, the Hajji family among them, who were greeted at the Ottawa airport by a small group of Canadian strangers who drove them to their new home in suburban Ottawa.

When the family entered the house, a chicken dinner with rice and peas was laid out on the kitchen table. “The food looked like something I’d never seen before,” recalls mother Ayyouch Hajji. “But it felt like we were home, for the first time in ages.”

Colleen Westeinde, one of the Hajji’s sponsors, says it is empowering to give of her time and resources. “Otherwise, it’s easy to drown in despair,” she says.

Sponsorship doesn’t solve all the problems a refugee might face. A 2014 University of Manitoba labor market study found the refugee unemployment rate to be double that of the general Canadian population. They face an income gap that takes on average 14 years to bridge.

Prospects seem to be better for “sponsored” refugees. A 2005 study by Social and Enterprise Development Innovations found that within three years of arriving in Canada, 72 percent of privately sponsored refugees are employed compared with 59 percent of government-assisted refugees.

European parallels and particulars

The efforts of sponsors like Ms. Westeinde, which run the gamut from teaching the kids how to skate to helping the adults navigate public transport, is similar to the Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) that blossomed in Germany, as refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and beyond poured in. In fact, Mr. Trudeau’s stance recalls that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who at the peak of Europe’s refugee crisis and in direct response to the ugly anti-migrant sentiment it kicked up, welcomed them with the mantra, “We can manage.”

Over the weekend, Chancellor Merkel and French President François Hollande both expressed regret over Trump’s ban, which impacts those from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

Still, leaders in Europe have had to navigate complex sentiments over refugees. Perhaps that is why British Prime Theresa May, under domestic pressure from anti-immigrant sentiment that helped spur “Brexit,” initially refused to comment on the ban. That kicked up a backlash and she later disagreed publicly.

While Merkel’s “welcome” to refugees was a beacon for human rights activists, it was a punching bag for political foes and has helped buoy the far-right Alternative for Germany. Similar right-wing, anti-immigrant politics has largely bypassed Canada.

Canada came into being in 1867, after British and French settlers made peace with each other and most indigenous tribes. Unlike the revolutionary origins of its southern neighbor, Canada trades in consensual politics.

It has also been spared the “clash of civilization” narrative about the Islamic world that puts some Europeans on edge, says Tom Flanagan, a Calgary political scientist who has advised Canada’s main conservative parties. “It’s not long ago that the Poles and the Hungarians were fighting the Turks at Budapest.”

But it’s geography that is the strongest bulwark against anti-migrant sentiment. Canada takes in 250,000 immigrants a year, with most selected through a point system that favors young people with skills the country lacks. While one million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 to request asylum, only 16,900 made demands on Canada’s border. The undocumented nature of Europe’s refugee system makes vetting a challenge. The terrorist who recently killed 12 revelers at a Christmas market in Berlin had entered Germany seeking refuge.

When undocumented foreigners have arrived unexpectedly in Canada like they do in Europe or the US across the Mexican border, they haven't been welcome. In 2010 when a cargo ship carrying 492 Tamil asylum seekers docked, a majority of Canadians wanted the ship turned away, polls showed. “There's nothing unique about the Canadian psyche; human beings get quite upset when they feel their territorial space is being violated,” Mr. Flanagan says.

Not without challenges

Identity politics has crept into political rhetoric on the Canadian right lately, but it has yet to gain a foothold. Nor has it put pressure on the private-sponsor program, which Flanagan says is because different groups mold it to their worldview. While most sponsors apply for any UN-selected refugee, groups can also ask for certain types of people. Religious groups often bring people of the same faith, while a national network of LGBT activists sponsor homosexuals feeling persecution in Iran.

“It’s helped to depoliticize the refugee issue, because it gives Canadians some say in who gets in,” Flanagan says. “It does allow substantial numbers of Canadians to see it as a humanitarian issue.”

Bureaucrats can’t keep up with the demand. Flanagan’s church has been waiting for months to get a Syrian family. “We couldn’t get one – there was a shortage of refugees.”

That’s not to say the program is not without challenges. A May 2016 poll found 68 percent of Canadians support resettlement, but 61 percent said refugees lacked adequate housing, language training, and social support. In December 2016, a Canadian Senate report warned that persistent waiting lists for English and French classes hindered Syrians from finding work.

And thousands are now reaching their 12-month cut-off of federal and sponsor-group financial support.

On a recent evening at the Hajj household, father Aref pours mint tea into curved glasses. Employment is on the top of minds.

Still, the Hajjis say they have been set free. Mr. Hajji recounts getting a call from a Canadian official who invited his family to board a plane from Lebanon, where the family had languished for years after they were driven out of Syria by civil war. The children were bullied in school, so they stayed at home. At 12, the couple’s eldest son is only partially literate, while his three younger siblings arrived unable to write Arabic, or any other language.

Ayyouch flinches when she remembers the house in Lebanon, where money was tight and the kids stayed inside.

“We would fight with each other. I wanted to hit them. I didn’t like the person it made me,” she admits. “Now we can do our best and contribute something. We will become Canadians.”

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