Panelists David Lau (left)

Panelists David Lau (left)

Responding to the Syrian refugee crisis

Students and panelists captivate an inspired audience at Pearson College

For many of us the brutalities of war are something we hear about in a far off land. They are just a brief clip on the evening news or a photograph that captivates our attention for a moment in time. But the realities of the war in Syria have been a way of life for two Pearson College UWC students.

Syrian refugee students Wahid and Ali shared some of their experiences with their classmates at a discussion on the Syrian refugee crisis at the school in Metchosin on Tuesday. Their last names have been withheld for the safety of the boys’ families.

“Do you know what is the worst?” asked Wahid, looking out over the faces of the over 100 in attendance. “The petrostates … Do you know how many refugees they have taken so far? Zero.” Ali echoed that last word, too.

“Many of them have been helping terror groups on the ground, sending weapons and money,” Wahid said, adding they have done nothing to help the people living in constant fear for their lives.

While he and Ali spoke, a picture illuminated a screen behind them showing people fleeing a square in Syria surrounded by the crumbling wreckage of buildings. Wahid said the scene was quickly becoming the normal daily way of life in Syria, and the city of Aleppo, where he was from. “When we just hear that 30 people have died … or we see old women trying to get water from a well … even food is not always there … It’s just hard life.”

When the uprising in Syria began many outside of its borders did not expect it to last more than a few weeks – months at the most. But this civil war has been decimating the country for several years and stems from a long and complicated history of third-party intervention.

Three panelist followed Wahid and Ali to try and give some context to the situation as well as providing some answers to students questions. Topics ranged from what Canadians should do, racist rhetoric, history and politics.

Ronald Crelinsten, associate fellow at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies, said “the first question we need to ask is why are people leaving Syria?” His answer was the war and the Islamic state.

“Bombs won’t solve it, military won’t solve it. It will only make it worse.”

He said civil society needs to push governments into making policies for lasting changes. “We need to fight this [racist] rhetoric and see everyone as human beings.”

Crelinsten said the countries with the most resources to aid Syrian refugees were the ones furthest away, like Canada, and were doing very little to speed up the process of accepting refugees.

Chris Kilford, former Colonel and Canadian Defence Attaché in the Canadian Armed Forces said “Canada was and still is the land of opportunity.”

He said the history of the region surrounding Syria had played a great role in the war. “The writing is on the wall… As long as the fighting in Syria continues unabated so will the flow of refugees.”

He mentioned the argument that it is “not our issue” which is often raised but pointed out that many European and North American countries did not have clean hands when it comes to intervening with less than noble intentions. “We have a moral obligation… due to our own overseas meddling.”

He said that “these people should not be seen as economical or financial burdens,” and it has been historically proven that refugees’ contributions to society were positive in the long term. But he doubted whether Canadian agencies would be able to process the number of applications in the proposed time frame to accept the number of refugees that they had already committed to.

David Lau, executive director of the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, said “a lot of Canadians don’t fully grasp… how privileged they are to be here.”

He was concerned that while he had noticed a great period of an increase in tolerance, it seemed to have ended somewhere in the late 1990s. “I think Canada could be entering a really scary period of time.”

He said Canada had the capacity to take in more refugees than the government targets due to its vast size and resources. But he, along with the other members of the panel were disappointed with Canada’s commitment. “We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history on this.”

After the discussion Wahid expressed his frustration with how the rest of the world viewed the situation in Syria.

“It’s like a game, like political football,” he said. “It brings very terrible feelings … No one really cares about the people.”

His words were deliberate while he spoke. “You can’t really feel the pain unless you go through it.” He paused for a moment. “It just hurts.”

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