Sunday, December 20, 2015

Welcoming Syrian Refugees to Canada: The Best Christmas Ever?

Is 2015 the best Christmas ever? It sure feels that way.

I don’t know about you, but my heart has been warmed this season, and not just because of the warmer than normal temperatures. Rather, it’s because of the amazing response across Canada to the plight of Syrian refugees.

I don’t get misty-eyed with national pride very often, but I felt proud to be a Canadian as I watched the Prime Minister welcome the first Syrians with the simple words: “You are home.”

It doesn’t hurt that other countries have noticed, and are heaping praise on Canada.

“Until Mr. Trudeau’s election, the Canadian government had been among Western countries that had responded to the refugee crisis with more apprehension than compassion,” said an editorial in the New York Times.

It went on to note that while the crisis in Syria is huge, and Canada’s response is small in comparison to the need. Yet, the newspaper noted, “Canada’s generosity—and Mr. Trudeau’s personal warmth and leadership—can serve as a beacon for others.”

As with many other international crises, churches are at the forefront of the response. This is not surprising; churches have long history of responding to these kinds of needs.

This includes my own church, which announced to applause on Sunday that it has decided to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

And it’s not only Christians; other faith groups are also responding. This includes members of the local Jewish community, who want to help another group caught up in the conflict in that region—the Yazidis—through Operation Ezra. 

The effort to help this persecuted minority is being led Belle Jarniewski, chairwoman of the Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre and vice-president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.

For her, the cause is personal; during the Holocaust, her father’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. She wants to prevent a similar genocide from befalling the Yazidis.

In an op-ed in this newspaper, she wrote that the words “never again” means “we would not stand by silently while another people is being slaughtered because of what they believe.”

While it’s enormously gratifying to see so many people wanting to help resettle refugees in Canada, there is concern this will mean fewer dollars will be available to help the estimated three million Syrian refugees who have sought shelter in places like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

With it costing $20,000 to $40,000 to settle a refugee family in Canada, there is concern among aid agencies that there will be fewer dollars left over to help people who are facing hunger and other needs in those countries.

One idea being floated is for churches and other groups that want to sponsor refugees to Canada to raise an additional five or ten percent to help those who are living in countries closer to their homeland.

Since it can cost only $80-$100 a month to provide supplementary food assistance for a family of six, this means a little can go a long way towards helping families who choose not to leave for places like Canada—people who hope to go home again one day to rebuild their broken nation.

But that is not to take away from the heartfelt and generous response from individuals, congregations, local and provincial governments, schools, businesses and so many others.

Altogether, the outpouring of support makes things feel so right, so Canadian, so Christmasy. It aligns so perfectly with the original biblical story of another young family seeking shelter and safety so long ago—a family that themselves would also become refugees.

Sure, there is still far too much attention paid to the glitzy consumerism of Christmas. We cannot escape the fake sentimentalities of the season that cling like slush to our shoes. 

And there are still far too many too many homeless and hungry Canadians who will not share in the cozy and familial delight of this holiday.

But there is still something magical, or maybe star-like, in the air. Maybe it’s that beacon noted by the New York Times, a shining light from Canada that brightens all of our spirits.

I don’t know if you feel that way, too, but through the response to the plight of Syrian refugees I hear an echo of the angels in the Gospel of Luke, the ones who sang “peace, goodwill to all” the night the Christ child was born.

Until Dec. 31, the Canadian government is matching all donations 1:1 for Syrian refugees in Lebanon & Jordan. You can support the efforts of Canadian Foodgrains Bank to help refugees in those countries by clicking here. 

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