Scathing as this may sound, as I see the outpouring of public affection being shown to Syrian refugees as they begin to arrive in Canada as part of the liberal government’s plan to bring 25,000 refugees into the country, I can’t help but grit my teeth.
Although I completely support the initiative, the whole thing has become a bit of a circus, and at the center of it all are the Syrian refugees playing the role of the performing seals. As they come off the airplanes arriving from the Middle East into Toronto, they are met by enthusiastic welcome parties who hold up homemade signs, give them stuffed toys, clap, and treat them like rock stars. Then the media quickly rushes in to get a sound bite or two from the Syrian refugees about how grateful they are to be in Canada and how happy they are that the country has given them a home. And Canadians smile in pride, pleased at just how wonderful we are!
There is a bit of a “great white savior coming to the rescue” vibe happening in all of this that seems wrong.
“Aren’t we great! We are helping these poor Muslims from the Middle East who live in such horrible conditions so that they can live like us in our superior culture, and be happy!” we think.
It sounds a whole lot like how Canada was formed in the first place, with white settlers believing that they were bringing a superior way of life to the “savages” of the land.
The truth is, for many of the Syrian refugees, they don’t want to be anywhere else other than the homes they know in Syria. To come to Canada is not exactly the big dream for some of them, and there has been no shortage of refugees approached in camps in Jordan and Lebanon who had declined the invitation to come to Canada. We aren’t exactly the great white saviors. Many of them had great lives until the bombing started. They were happy. Life was good. Their way of life was good.
For four-and-a-half years, Canadians ignored the intense suffering happening to Syrians. As Bashar Al-Assad dropped barrel bombs and chemical weapons on his people, ISIS grew in size and seized huge swathes of territory no one seemed interested. It was just another war in the Middle East. People have been fleeing Syria since the beginning, and no one much paid attention. They have been forced to leave homes that their families may have been in for centuries.
This may be breaking and hard to swallow news for some Canadians, but in some ways, Canada is actually an inferior choice for some of the Syrian refugees. For many fleeing the war in Syria, they had good lives. They had the lives they wanted in Syria. It was their country, their rules, their cultures, their ways of life. And, compared to their pre-war lives in Syria, their quality of life may end up worse than what they once had. By coming to Canada, they aren’t necessarily moving up in the world.
For example, there are many Syrian refugees who will be looking for places to live in Vancouver and Toronto. These cities are experiencing record high housing prices. Most Canadians cannot afford to buy homes in these cities. For many Syrian refugees, they will face the same issue as many Canadians, that living in the larger centers means a decrease in quality of life. They may have had amazing, well-paying jobs in Syria, jobs that they aren’t able to get in Canada for any number of reasons whether their university degrees are not recognized in Canada or that the jobs just aren’t available. Truthfully, for some, we aren’t necessarily offering a better way of life. We are offering a place that isn’t being bombed, but outside of that, we might not be actually providing a superior product.
On top of that, we are a country that is thousands of kilometers away from their homes, on the other side of the world. Our climate isn’t the most enjoyable for some Canadians, let alone those from outside of Canada. There are drawbacks to coming to Canada, and no refugee should feel obligated to have a sense of extreme joy about leaving their region to come all the way to Canada.
To stick a camera in the face of Syrian refugees as they deplane and want that precious sound bite of them stroking our national ego, saying how great it is to be in our wonderful, giving country, we seem more focused on ourselves and what we are doing than them and what their reality is. The message is not as much that we care about people from Syria as much as we care about our national image and we care about us. We want these people to tell us how pleased they are that we have saved them. We want them to give us the attention we crave.
Let’s stop the opportunism, using the Syrian refugees as a giant photo-op to illustrate to ourselves how wonderful we are as a country and start looking at Syrian refugees as humans. We keep talking about how the Syrian refugees are just normal, regular, everyday people like us when fighting back against anti-immigration rhetoric. But, then they aren’t being treated like normal, regular, everyday people when they get off the planes. They are treated like circus animals meant to entertain us, impress us with their rhetoric about how wonderful Canada is for saving the poor Syrian refugees. We can do better than that.
[Photo by Larry French/Getty Images]