I’m writing this column on September 11 – just before the September 21 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin goes to press and just before we close our office for Rosh Hashanah – and the news over the past several weeks, and, indeed, our federal election campaign, has been dominated by the Syrian refugee crisis. With millions of refugees in camps in Jordan and Turkey and with thousands upon thousands attempting to find safety in Europe, it has been described it as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
The world’s collective hearts were broken early this month, when a photo of the drowned body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach after the small boat his family was in capsized. The boat, meant to hold a maximum of eight people, carried 16 desperate refugees. The young boy’s mother and brother also drowned and the father was the family’s only survivor.
The Kurdi family’s tragedy hit particularly hard here in this country, when we learned the family had hoped ultimately to join relatives already in Canada.
The Syrian refugee crisis is not a new phenomenon. The brutal civil war, which has seen hundreds of thousands killed and millions more displaced from their homes, has been raging for more than four years. The terrible situation in Syria was incomprehensibly tragic and unbearable even before ISIS inserted itself into the conflict in 2014, making everything unimaginably worse. It was seemingly impossible to find a credible faction in the civil war worthy of support. All seemed to be brutal and cruel and with no regard for the innocent civilians whose ways of life – if not their very lives – were being destroyed.
Watching these events from afar, Canadians want our government to do something to help solve the problem – but we watch with a feeling of helplessness, knowing that no matter how many refugees we bring to Canada, it will solve but a drop in the bucket of human suffering.
Still, though, we need to see our country do something. And, so, it was heartbreaking to open the morning newspaper today and learn that Canada’s immigration department, the department responsible for processing refugee applications, returned more than $350 million in unspent funds to the Canadian treasury between 2011 and 2014. Those unspent dollars imply Canada has not done all we could – or even what we have budgeted for – since the crisis began.
As Jews, we know something of what it means to be refugees. Many of our ancestors arrived in Canada between the 1880s and 1920s fleeing the brutal anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe. More Jews arrived in Canada after the Second World War as Holocaust survivors; and more again when life became unbearable for Jews in many Muslim countries following the creation of the State of Israel.
And we remember when the Canadian government’s policy toward Jewish refugees attempting to flee the Holocaust was “none is too many.”
The Syrian refugee crisis is incredibly complicated, and I can’t pretend to have any answers as to how much we can possibly do now to alleviate the crisis – or what ultimately can be done to end the civil war that has brought about this seemingly unresolvable, catastrophic situation. We live in a world that seems to be so cruelly extreme on so many levels.
I do know, though, that Canada, indeed the world, cannot just stand by. We must do something.