• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The New Refugees Scare Me Too

[This is another post lightly adapted from one originally written for my blog, “On Second Thought,” offered on the website for “Context with Lorna Dueck.”]

I want to confess two things right up front about the Syrian refugees coming to Canada. I admire the people who are bringing them and caring for them, whether politicians, social service workers, churches, and other community groups. And at the same time I’m afraid of what all these newcomers might mean for Canada’s future.

I’ve seen the photos and the video clips of anguish, fear, and desperation. I’ve seen the awful camps. I’ve seen the devastated cities and towns. Of course I want the victims of Syria’s agony to have homes, schools, jobs, and security.

But I’ve also seen the riots in the banlieues of Paris. I’ve read about sexual assaults, vicious gangs, and suicide bombings in the very capitals of Europe originating out of immigrant populations violently alienated from their new countries. Of course I don’t want us to import more trouble than we can handle.

The refugee problem today is as bad as it has ever been. Most refugees do not speak adequate French or English. Most do not come from similar (= modern Western) cultural backgrounds. Most are not Christians and many in fact come from societies that have taught them to see Christians as rivals, if not enemies.

As the “Context with Lorna Dueck” program on this subject made clear, however, we also are better equipped to deal well with these challenges than we have ever been. We have rich and successful experience with refugees as diverse as Armenians and Vietnamese, and it is people from these communities who give us shining examples of “paying it forward” to care for those who now need a refuge.

We are richer as a country than we have ever been. A lot of Markhamites do have “big houses,” as one guest charmingly allowed, and that fact symbolizes the greater truth that we Canadians have resources for all sorts of things to devote to refugee care, if we want to. (A society that takes for granted Starbucks coffees, iPhones, and travel vacations has more disposable income than we typically recognize.)

What gave me the most hope, however, was the partnership between government agencies and private sponsors…a pattern that one guest said is unique in the world.

Everyone is happy to attend the welcoming scene at the airport arrivals gate. But who is going to help each newcomer do what needs to be done, day in and day out, over the very long haul? Who is going to help our new neighbours keep at their English lessons, get regular primary medical and dental care, make difficult and wise financial decisions in a very different economy, and comfort exhausted parents and discouraged kids?

Who is going to be there for those newcomers five years from now, or ten? Not the Prime Minister or his cabinet. Not an ever-rotating and hard-pressed staff of social workers and government agencies. If refugees stand a chance of staying off Canada’s streets and staying in school, in work, and in their neighbours’ good graces, someone has to stay with them.

I didn’t hear some of the answers I wanted to hear on this program. I do want to know how our economy is going to find decent work for people without English, let alone skills relevant to a much higher-tech situation than they had in Syria. I do want to know how social housing is going to be available when waiting lists for people already here are ‘way too long. I do want to know how we are going to draw people in to become true Canadians and not a fifth column for a foreign threat.

What I saw on the program, however, were hard-working, committed, and realistic volunteers who have pledged themselves and their communities to do what needs to be done.

In the face of my fear of the stranger, God calls me to love my neighbour. But this admirably unsentimental, but devoted, quality of care shown on the program by those who are welcoming newcomers is what the Bible actually means by “loving your neighbour.” And only such sober realism will help us serve all our neighbours properly: those who are arriving, yes, but those who are already here and those who were here before us.

Given Canada’s wealth of resources, in the face of the world’s refugee crisis we dare not say, “We can’t afford to help.” But given Canada’s fragility, we must say instead, “We can’t afford to do it badly.”

In the faces and voices of Context’s guests this week, I saw the kind of realistic hope that gives me hope.

And not just hope, but a feeling I don’t feel as often as I wish I could: pride in being a Canadian, and a Christian.