Last September, after the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body on that Turkish beach hit the world’s front pages, the top Google search term in Canada was, “How to sponsor a Syrian?”
The news media here, in the midst of covering a federal election campaign, jumped all over the Kurdi story. Not just because it was tragic, nor because of the Kurdi family’s Canadian connection through the toddler’s Vancouver-based aunt, but because the country, bitterly divided over the former Conservative government’s attitudes towards Muslims, suddenly didn’t recognise itself as the welcoming, multicultural nation it had long believed itself to be.
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And so, on TV, online and in print, there were stories on how many refugees were expected, how few the Stephen Harper regime had approved, and how Canadians, individually, in groups and as part of community organisations, could sponsor Syrian refugee families.
Then, on October 19, 2015, the Harper Conservatives were defeated and the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau swept to power.
Syrian refugee fundraising
Immigration organisations such as Lifeline Syria were flooded with phone calls. Settlement services scrambled to produce handbooks and hold seminars on sponsorship. Children began competing in a “1,000 Schools Challenge” to each bring in a family.
People banded together in “Groups of Five” to raise the estimated $30,000 it takes to privately sponsor families of four. Churches, mosques and synagogues partnered to bring in refugees. Business stepped up, with funding, free mobile phones and furniture.
Property companies reserved hundreds of apartments. One entrepreneur pledged more than $1m to sponsor 50 families.
While the media were running feel-good stories about the sponsor application rush, anybody scanning the comments sections would find very different attitudes indeed.
During the election campaign, Trudeau had promised to settle 25,000 refugees by the end of the year. That would prove to be impossible. Refugees can’t row in crowded dinghies or stream over borders here as they do in Europe. They must come in by plane. It takes logistics. Which is why, despite the enthusiasm of many Canadians, the goal of 25,000 was trimmed to 10,000 by December 31, with the remainder due to land by March 2016.
True, many Canadians were resistant, split especially following the November bombings in Paris. So, while the media were running feel-good stories about the sponsor application rush, anybody scanning the comments sections would find very different attitudes indeed.
In early December, however, when Trudeau turned up at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to greet the first arrivals and help them into warm coats, the country’s collective heart melted, its national pride burst.
Doors slammed shut
Sure there were bumps. A sponsorship group in Oakville, Ontario found doors slammed shut when it sought housing for its refugee family.
In Vancouver, in what has been deemed a “hate crime”, 15 men, women and children were pepper-sprayed at a welcome ceremony. The New Year’s Eve sexual assault rampage allegedly committed by recent arrivals in Cologne triggered a wave of fear and loathing.
But the planes kept landing.
According to Canada Immigration and Citizenship, as of January 14, 10,790 refugees have arrived, about half of them Christian, approximately half privately sponsored. Private groups are still submitting some 200 sponsorship applications a week.
Last Wednesday, Joe Jacobs’ Syrian family landed.
The Muslim couple and their eight children, who range in age from weeks-old to 17 years, had fled Daraa in southwestern Syria where the father was a baker. They arrived to shiver in sub-zero weather but to bask in a warm welcome.
“Our group was supposed to get 24 to 48 hours’ notice that they were coming but we got a phone call saying that they were waiting at the hotel; we had to be there within the hour,” Jacobs tells Al Jazeera. “Luckily we had made preparations ahead of time.”
The Toronto teacher is part of a “Group of Five” that connected through their children’s school. They raised money from others and contributed their own funds to bring in the family whose identity they are protecting. They are committed for one year to aid the newcomers with everything from finding housing, schools, jobs and language lessons to introducing them to the city and culture.
Jacobs is realistic about the challenges ahead: “You have to provide the support part but you can’t be too paternalistic about it. You don’t want to treat them as the wretched people of the earth. It is such a difficult position to be placed in where you’re dependent on people where you really shouldn’t have needed to be and you’re expected to be so grateful. And I think that a danger with the whole programme a bit is that Canadians are trying to be very generous but need to be careful that these people are not treated as playthings; that these people should have what they need.”
As for what he calls the “euphoria” and media frenzy over Canada’s apparent acceptance of refugees, Jacobs is wary.
“It seems to be all about us,” he observes. “There seems to be a lot of focus on how wonderful we are to be doing this sort of thing when, for example, part of the discussion for our [refugee] family is, ‘How are we going to help these people to rise out of a certain level of poverty here in Canada?’ These families have a really tough row to hoe ahead and I’m not sure how much Canada and the Canadians who are sponsoring are understanding of that.”
What worries Jacobs is not so much that the refugees adjust to Canada – although that’s critical – but that Canada adjusts to them.
“Last week, when we all were getting on a bus, the driver was like ‘Holy ****!’ and was just looking at them; it was such a negative reaction,” he recalls. “The family didn’t understand but we certainly saw that a negative view is out there. I don’t know how predominant it is, but it has the potential to grow when the euphoria dies down.”
Jane Philpott, the health minister, seemed unconcerned last week when she declared: “The integration phase is ultimately the most important phase, to make sure that these Syrian refugees become well integrated into Canadian culture, that they understand our cultural values and practices …
“The question to me is more can the people of Montreal and Toronto handle this?” Jacobs says. “It’s not so much whether the system can. It’s whether Canada allows these people to live in poverty or will support them to become economically integrated members of society.
“And if they don’t, the question then becomes why did we say we’re going to accept them?”
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.