Evan Solomon

Why the Syrian refugee crisis has eluded our leaders’ grasp

Evan Solomon on the refugee crisis, and a Ugandan family who entered his own life 43 years ago

Syrian men form a safety passage for women following clashes during a registration procedure in the national stadium of the Greek island of Kos August 11, 2015. Local authorities struggle to cope with the increasing numbers of migrants and refugees arriving on dinghies from nearby Turkish coast. United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to take control of the "total chaos" on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed. About 124,000 have arrived this year by sea, many via Turkey, according to Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian men form a safety passage for women following clashes during a registration procedure in the national stadium of the Greek island of Kos August 11, 2015. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

“We left at a bad time, lots of killing and kidnapping,” Shamshudin Esmail tells me with a break in his gentle voice. “We went through four army checkpoints, were searched and interrogated and had to bribe our way through.” He’d already arranged to get his wife and his four-month-old son, Mustafa, out to Europe, where he met them. “We left everything behind.”

There is a long pause. In that silence, I can hear the thousands of details he is leaving out. The waiting. The fear. The mundane urgencies of travelling with a baby, where every second is exhausted with basic tasks such as changing a diaper or getting food. I try to imagine what he’s seeing in his mind and I can’t. Refugeeland can’t be mapped so easily. And it is like its own land. What the world once imagined as a temporary state for displaced persons has somehow become a quasi-state unto itself. Camps. Hot spots. Pick your word. They are not going away.

With the Syrian refugee crisis engulfing the federal election campaign, I reconnected with the first refugees I’d ever met, to see it through their eyes. Shamshidun—he goes by Sam—arrived in Canada in 1972. That’s when our lives interconnected. Like many Canadians, my parents had heard that the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had ordered the expulsion of people of South Asian origin. More than 80,000, many Ismailis like Sam, were forced to flee. My parents responded instinctively. “How could we not see the parallels to the ’30s in Europe?” my mother recalls.

At the time, Canada didn’t even have a diplomatic office in Uganda, but Pierre Trudeau sent a team to Kampala to help. Between September and early November, the Canadian mission screened, selected and airlifted 6,000 people out to Canada. It was the biggest resettlement of non-Europeans—read non-whites—in our history until then. Next to the bureaucratic complexities we hear about regarding Syrian refugees, the process was almost implausibly simple.

    “The Red Cross called to say that there was a young family who had just entered Canada,” my mother recalls. “They were staying at the Strathcona Hotel and could we pick them up?” That’s all it took. “Our first stop was a Loblaws, where we bought baby food for Mustafa,” Sam remembers. They stayed with us for more than two months. I was only four then and bunked with my brother while the Esmails stayed in my room. My two-year-old sister’s crib was given to Mustafa.

    Over the years, we followed the Esmails’ journey. They had a daughter, Nadua, and moved to Calgary in 1976. It was a hard time. “My wife cried a lot,” Sam says, “but slowly, slowly we adjust.”

    It wasn’t an easy life. “We had so little money,” Mustafa told me. He is now a dentist with a family of three, still living in Calgary. His sister is a doctor living in the U.S. “I was called ‘Paki’ a lot and told to go home. Now it is so different here, so multicultural.” Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, is Ismaili, and Mustafa often saw him at the mosque.

    Both Sam and Mustafa have been struck deeply by the Syrian refugee crisis. And by the tepid response. “Canada should be taking the lead,” Mustafa says. “We talk about multiculturalism, but we have to be leaders on how to make it work.” Mustafa understands concerns about security post-9/11, but to him, it misses the point. “People leaving Syria are victims, they are the ones with young families who want a better life.”

    If election campaigns are all about what we want—tax cuts, child care—the refugee crisis is about who we are. They are very different things. War rooms can test and measure what voters want and sell it back to them, but it’s harder to measure who we are. That’s why the refugee situation has eluded the grasp of our leaders. It elicits complicated, often unflattering responses. Ekos pollster Frank Graves found only 39 per cent of us think we are taking in too few refugees. On the other hand, 59 per cent think we are already taking in enough or too many. Is that who we are?

    No party has a perfect response, but the Conservatives have been hardest-hit by the politics. They know they need better answers—faster processing and more people on the ground—but when they put International Development Minister Christian Paradis out to declare the $100 million in matching fees for donations, it was a classic issues-smothering tactic. Paradis is not running again. Giving him the announcement rather than having the PM or higher-profile ministers such as Chris Alexander, Jason Kenney and Rob Nicholson do it was a sign they want the refugee issue to fade into the background. To be fair, there is already $503.5 million allocated for humanitarian aid, but better to focus on the economy and security.

    Refugee issues may just be too human for a campaign, the pain too unending. We can never take in enough refugees to end the crisis. But maybe, this one time, we ought to ignore the pollsters and the politics. Maybe listen to people like Sam, and open our doors more readily. Campaigns are fast, but this issue might require different advice. “Slowly, slowly,” Sam says, “we adjust.”