The negative public stance on Syrian refugees reveals a loss in Canadian values

Photo by Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

Written by: Matt Holowko, SFU Student

Three years ago, Canada welcomed refugees from Syria. I couldn’t help but feel proud and patriotic at the thought of this: we were kind, open-minded, and nicer than our neighbours to the south.

Three years is not a long time in the big picture, though. In 2018, the climate has changed fast.

More and more, the stories we see about Syrian-Canadians overlook all the positive things about them, instead focusing on the rare, extreme cases of atrocious, criminal behaviour. That sensationalism makes those scarce cases appear to be far more common than they really are.

This was very much embodied by the coverage of a Syrian refugee in New Brunswick who allegedly beat his wife for half an hour with a hockey stick, and claimed “he was not aware of the law” in Canada. More recently, in B.C., another Syrian refugee was arrested for murder in early September, causing many Syrians to fear that a broad brush would be painted across all Syrians.

Immediately after, many of these sorts of stories were commented on or shared by people who called them proof that Syrian refugees were some sort of security and screening issue — an inherent threat needing our vigilance.

Stories like this keep starting never-ending arguments that don’t need to exist in the first place. Should we pay benefits to newcomers? Is this a problem with Syrians or a few random individuals? I feel the answer to both these questions is “yes.”

But when we circulate these stories of violence, telling and spreading them with such fervor, we encourage people to bear all sorts of negative attitudes towards Canada’s refugee response — a response that should make us feel proud, not ashamed or angry.

Those negative attitudes towards Syrian refugees certainly aren’t new, but they’re absolutely increasing as these stories get shared and discussed. From the time Trudeau announced that Canada would be taking in Syrian refugees, some questions were raised in light of his warm welcome.

In 2017, a public poll was conducted by Angus Reid Institute, a Canadian public interest research group, on how people feel about refugees in Canada. Of responders, 41% said the number of refugees is too high, and only 11% think Canada should increase our refugee acceptance.

While Syrian refugees still face certain challenges, I feel proud that Canada can be a place of safety for so many people. But even as some people look for safety here, others have an unfortunate attraction to violent news stories, and the result is that more weight is given to negative attitudes towards refugees.

Mohammed Alsaleh, a member of the Syrian-Canadian Council of BC, was overcome with sadness and anger at the news of who the accused was, with concerns that his community will be affected by the actions of this one individual. Alsaleh took part in a public vigil, held the day the accused appeared in Provincial Court, to support justice for the victim. Alsaleh expressed that the Syrian community will be there “with a message of unity, hope, and humanity.” While seeing people fight for these values is fantastic, seeing such an opposition to them is depressing.

In early 1950, my grandfather on my dad’s side had newly immigrated to Canada, coming from eastern Europe after witnessing famine, war, and many displaced persons camps. He arrived in Canada much like the Syrians did: with uncertainty, fear, and a sense of loss from leaving his homeland.

Even then, some people were wary of this well-dressed man who loved to write and tell his tales of triumph over the evils of war. I remember he shared how grateful he was to finally become a Canadian citizen. Maybe this is why I feel an affinity for new immigrants.

When I think about Canada, I think about people accepting diversity, and accepting others’ rights to live as they choose, without prejudice. I would like to think that the majority of Canadians share these values, but I fear that my faith in this is waning. Many still hang onto this endeavor of Trudeau and Canada to accept Syrian refugees, trying to help those in need. I want to believe in that, too.