The exodus conundrum


As Canadians wring their hands and gnash their teeth over the arrival of as many as 25,000 refugees from strife-ridden Syria, the conversation inevitably turns to a sometimes irresponsible and xenophobic question of whether we want them.

To be clear and to our credit, most of us say we do. Our country is, after all, one of the world’s last remaining go-to places for people who are, through no fault of their own, in deep trouble.

Lately, though, the other shoe has fallen: Do Syrians want us?

A rather distressing, yet revealing, report in the Globe and Mail earlier this month suggests that more Syrians than we’d like to admit are saying “no” to the Great White North – fearing the effect of cultural and linguistic differences, the lack of good, durable employment opportunities, and even Canada’s rather parsimonious social policy regarding the disposition of foreign nationals in this country over the past decade.

According to the Globe piece by Sara Elizabeth Williams, reporting from Amman, the capital of Jordan, “Omayma al-Kasem. . .is one of a sizeable number of Syrians turning down the chance to become permanent residents of Canada. UN figures (show that) just three out of every 10 households contacted about resettlement in Canada go on to relocate.”

Although Ms. al-Kasem – a well-educated, 26-year-old, fourth-year law student – readily describes her life and that of her family, effectively hiding from harm’s way in Jordan, as “the lowest level of hell”, apparently that’s better than taking a chance on a cold, strange nation half-a-world-away from everything she knows and still cherishes.

She must, she says, “think like a mom.” In her case, she reveals, “In Jordan we are already separated from my two sisters who are in Syria. If we went to Canada we would have to leave my brother, his wife and their baby. I don’t want to separate my family any further. . .Even in the move from Syria to Jordan, we lost some connection to our religion. If we go to Canada, how can I raise my little sisters in a language and culture I don’t understand?”

Aoife McDonnell, an external relations officer at the UNHCR refugee agency in Jordan, provides the broader context: “Some families are still hoping to return home, others are concerned about their ability to integrate into another country.”

Still complicating matters is the recent transition in Canada’s federal government, from avowedly Conservative to Liberal, just since October. What are potential newcomers from every background to make of the molten lava of our national policy towards them?

For New Brunswick, which has agreed to welcome hundreds of Syrian refugees, the response must be something better than the national standard.

We have jobs that need filling, homes that need building, ideas that need spreading, and hopes that need fulfilling. We must craft the ways and means to assure the next wave of immigrants to this province that we understand – and are prepared to deliver – what they need to survive in the short term and thrive in the long one.

What, in fact, do we have to offer Syrians in New Brunswick? Winter coats and boots are fine. But what of the job and career opportunities? What of educational, linguistic and cultural assistance initiatives?

The single imperative on which all intelligent citizens in this province must concur is immigration. To achieve our commercial and fiscal goals, we simply need more people from around the world to find our friendly place economically efficacious. And we want them to stay.

The question is: How do we persuade them that we’re serious?

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