Canada Knows How to Respond to a Refugee Crisis

A pro-refugee rally in Vancouver last month. Credit Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
A pro-refugee rally in Vancouver last month. Credit Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

When I saw the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead, facedown, on a Turkish beach last month, I felt an electrifying stillness.

At the same age as that toddler, I came to Canada as a Chinese refugee soon after Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in late December 1941. Thanks to the Red Cross, my family took two ships and a train and arrived in Canada in August 1942; the voyage took us through Mozambique, South Africa and Brazil before we arrived in New York harbor and, eventually, Ottawa.

My parents, my seven-year-old brother and I were nearly turned away at the dock when boarding in Hong Kong because someone noticed that we weren’t white and Canada at the time had a notorious restriction against Chinese immigration. Thankfully, another official told us to just get on the boat.

Our baggage allowance — one suitcase each — included my brother’s pillow, without which he could not sleep. We were given only eight hours to pack. My grandmother had rushed down to the pier to give my mother a rudimentary Cantonese cookbook, telling her that rice must be covered in cold water to two fingers depth and then boiled. We never saw my grandmother again.

In 1979, Canada responded to another refugee crisis: the plight of the Vietnamese boat people. Our public servants went to the refugees, rather than waiting for the refugees to come to us.

They worked 20-hour days in hot, humid refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia. They identified, selected and approved 60,000 refugees on site. Then they put them on 181 charter flights, paid for by the Canadian government, and flew them to military bases in Edmonton and Montreal.

The refugees were received, oriented and documented and then dispersed throughout the country to sponsoring Canadian groups who took the children to register at school, helped the parents find jobs and organized housing.

This needs to happen again. Rather than waiting for people to risk their lives by making dangerous crossings in flimsy vessels, the only solution is for diplomats to go to crisis zones.

Canadian immigration officials could be sent out once again to places like Kos and Lesvos to help screen and approve refugees.

Canada is a country that aims to accept 350,000 people — 1 percent of its population — each year as immigrants and future citizens. Canada knows how to handle refugee crises, and we can show others how to do it better.

We have retired immigration officers who would likely jump at the chance to offer their experience to German and Swedish officials struggling to manage this horrendous crisis. They could train their counterparts in European countries to assess and process refugees on site in Turkey so that families like the Kurdis don’t have to risk their lives and have part of their families drown.

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This would ease the rush to borders and help to bring some organization to what is now total chaos. With all the technology that is now available we should be able to process, identify and place refugees much more easily than we did in 1979.

I think about the life that Aylan Kurdi could have had in Canada, where his aunt already lives, and the extended family that would have welcomed and sheltered him. What would he have done if he had grown up in Canada as I did? What if he had been taken to a small Canadian city where the Jewish drugstore owner gave him free cough drops along with his prescription, and told his own son to walk him home through the snow? What if his family had found housing in a little apartment in a French-Canadian neighborhood where the neighbors taught his mother how to cook stew and beans?

Like all refugees, I am imprinted with the nature of loss and the necessity for reinvention. By surviving, you gain the chance, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

I went to neighborhood public elementary and high schools and a public university. My brother went to McGill to become a surgeon, and I went to the University of Toronto and became a TV broadcaster and then Canada’s governor-general. Little Aylan Kurdi will never have an opportunity to aspire to any of this.

Nor will he know a country like ours that accepted 50,000 Hungarians (the same nation that is now putting up barbed wire to keep refugees out) in 1956 at the height of the Cold War, and that took 10,000 Ismaili Muslims threatened by death and loss of citizenship in East Africa in 1972.

Naheed Nenshi, the 43-year-old mayor of Canada’s oil capital, Calgary, was one of those refugees: His mother was pregnant with him when they arrived. He is the first Muslim mayor of a large North American city, and he was re-elected two years ago with 74 percent of the vote in a city that had never before elected a visible minority as mayor.

Canada is not likely to take 800,000 refugees as Germany has announced it will. But in addition to offering our expertise on screening and resettlement to other nations, we must do our part to welcome more. We could — and should — accept at least 100,000 per year.

After all, we are a country of immigrants, built on the foundation of the Aboriginal peoples. We must be reminded to love the stranger, as we ourselves were once strangers.

Adrienne Clarkson was the governor-general of Canada from 1999 to 2005.

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