Our front page story this issue is a feature about the Al Sahhar family who are among the 25,000 refugees from the brutal civil war in Syria who have, so far, found a safe haven in Canada.
The family’s resettlement in Ottawa is under the sponsorship of Temple Israel of Ottawa, and the Reform congregation is but one of many synagogue groups across Canada who have undertaken such sponsorship projects in recent months. The Shalom Group, a joint effort of Ottawa’s three Conservative congregations – Agudath Israel, Beth Shalom and Adath Shalom – is currently raising funds so that it, too, can undertake sponsorship of a Syrian refugee family.
I’m also aware of a number of Jewish community members who are involved in some of the many private sponsorship groups in Ottawa, and across Canada – in many cases groups of like-minded friends, neighbours or colleagues – which have undertaken sponsorship of Syrian refugee families. Mark Zarecki, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, which has taken a leading role in guiding and helping refugee sponsorship groups – including Temple Israel, the Shalom Group and many private groups – told me that members of the Jewish community have been among the most active in helping this new refugee community.
That synagogue groups and members of the Jewish community have stepped forward to aid in the resettlement of Syrian refugees – a massive humanitarian crisis involving millions of people – is not a surprise considering the history of Jewish immigration to these shores. Some of us are refugees ourselves – and many more of us are children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees. The great wave of Jewish immigration to North America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was fuelled by many of our ancestors fleeing anti-Semitic persecution and pogroms in Eastern Europe. Later waves of 20th century Jewish immigration included Holocaust survivors and Jews driven from Arab and Muslim countries after the establishment of the State of Israel.
And, as a community, we also remember those dark years when Canada disgracefully closed our borders to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and, ultimately, the Holocaust.
However, there are some in the Jewish community who have expressed concern about Syrian refugees because they come from a country that has been an enemy of the State of Israel since the modern state was founded in 1948, a country in which anti-Semitism has been part and parcel of the culture since at least that time.
Indeed, those concerns are not unfounded as there have been a few reports from Europe of anti-Semitic incidents involving Syrian refugees.
But the situation in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have streamed directly with no or little screening, is very different from Canada where the arriving refugees are primarily families that have been carefully screened.
According to Zarecki, the prominence of Jews and Jewish groups in the sponsorship of Syrian refugee resettlement in Canada will go a long way to combating anti-Semitism among the refugee community – despite what may have been part of their culture in Syria. Helpful interactions and sincere friendships speak loudly.
Zarecki points to Jewish Family Services’ track record in working closely with the Somali community – who, like the Syrian refugees, are Muslim – and the collaborative ties and friendships that have developed as a result.
Several groups – including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants and B’nai Brith Canada – have written to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum urging him to take urgent action to strip Helmut Oberlander of his fraudulently obtained Canadian citizenship and deport him from Canada.
Oberlander, 92, was a member of one of the Nazis’ Einsatzkommando death squads that operated during the Second World War murdering tens of thousands of people. He used forged documents to come to Canada in 1954 and obtain citizenship in 1960.
The government initiated efforts to strip Oberlander of his citizenship in 1995 – an effort that has bounced between Cabinet and the courts for 21 years. The process has dragged on for far too long.
Visit www.cija.ca/justicedenied/ to add your name to the letter.