On Sept. 9 the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis was declared the worst humanitarian crisis of our time by the Secretary General of the United Nations. Over 11 million Syrians have been displaced as a result of the current civil war. While the majority of refugees have fled to the Middle East and Europe, Quebec has accepted more than half of the 2,374 Syrian refugees who came to Canada between January 2014 and August 2015.
Vice-President Internal of McGill’s Syrian Students Association (SSA) Ghalia Elkerdi explained the importance of making a distinction between refugees and migrants when discussing these issues.
“I think we should be very careful when we use the terms refugee and migrant because migrant means something different,” she said. “[Migrant] means people [who] applied to an immigration process to get to Europe and elsewhere. [These refugees] crawled out of Syria because of the war, and then they had to swim, and they found themselves on European soil and under international law; Because they are refugees, Europe has to take them in. This distinction is not being made in the mainstream media.”
The Quebec Context
Stéphane Plante, press officer for the office of the Immigration Minister, explained Quebec’s current role in the refugee crisis.
“Our government felt that it was the right time to show leadership in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II,” Plante said. “We have a moral obligation toward those men, women, [and] children fleeing violence. We have the opportunity to provide them with peace, security, and a future.”
Plante cited the Quebec government’s intention to admit 2,450 more Syrian refugees this year, bringing the total refugees admitted into the province in 2015 up to 3,650. He additionally explained that Quebec has resettled 60 per cent of all Syrian refugees in Canada.
“Quebec has always responded to the call during humanitarian crsis,” he said. “We have already assured the federal government that we will do our part should they decide to admit more refugees.”
Elkerdi, however, says there is skepticism in the Syrian community that the government will keep these promises.
“There was a time [… when the Quebec government] announced they were going to grant 10,000 people refugee status, but the number suddenly became 2,000 […] and now they’re bringing it back up, so it keeps fluctuating up and down,” Elkerdi said. “And the Syrian community, they’ve learned not to really trust numbers.”
According to Plante, the nature of aid given to refugees who arrive in Quebec includes services such as health care evaluation and coverage, education, French classes, and employment services. While agreeing with the need for these basic necessities, Elkerdi described the importance of additional community support for the refugees.
“I feel like it’s really all about the community,” she said. “The government has responsibilities towards refugees. They have to protect them, they have to give them basic allowance or whatever they need to sustain themselves, but I always found it’s not the government officials who [are] going to knock at your door on a religious holiday and bring you gifts or sweets. It’s really the community around you.”
Elkerdi, who migrated from Syria to Canada in 2010, discussed the obstacles Syrian students can now face when coming to study at McGill.
“When you’re applying, [McGill wants] your official transcripts, but a lot of Syrians lost their official documents and transcripts in the war, Elkerdi said. “They have proof [of their grades] but it’s not, for example, stamped. There’s also the complication of getting a student visa. I think that this is a form of injustice in itself. The university has [said] that this person is accepted into [McGill] and they will be allowed to pursue their knowledge here, and [the government is] saying [they can’t because] they don’t have the visa.”
The SSA has brought the issue to the attention of the McGill administration and hope to help in its resolution.
“We’re trying to work within the administration internally to make it as easy and fluid as possible for students to really pursue their knowledge,” Elkerdi said.
During McGill’s Sept. 24 Senate meeting, Principal Suzanne Fortier addressed McGill’s efforts to aid in the refugee crisis.
“We’re working with our colleagues in government and in other Canadian universities as to what we can do here at McGill to help,” she said. “The provost and vice principal academic are reaching out to […] have students join our university. [They’re also] using the expertise that we have and the research that can be of assistance to people who will be joining our country.”
The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Program is a service that helps provide education to refugees by bringing them to Canadian universities. Since 1987 McGill has accepted 36 students through this program, 10 of whom are currently enrolled at the university.
“McGill has been part of the [WUSC] program which is a long-standing non-profit that runs international education programs to bring refugees to Canadian campuses,” Fortier said in last week’s Senate meeting.
The SSA has taken on the project of raising money for Syrian refugee schoolchildren in Turkey through bake sales at McGill and Concordia. Elkerdi underscored that the money raised through bake sales did have a substantial impact on the lives of Syrian children.
“One Canadian dollar can actually sponsor one kid’s education for a day,” Elkerdi said. “If we were making $500 a bake sale, we were able to sponsor 500 kids’ education for a day, and this is just by us being social and standing and selling baked goods to people.”
General Director of the Canadian Red Cross, Quebec Division, and McGill alumnus, Michel Léveillé also emphasized the importance of financial contributions.
“We always say with one click you can make a difference,” Léveillé said. “Though our website we accept financial donations and that’s the best way to support the refugee operations. We do not use those donations for our regular budget.”
The Red Cross has used these funds to supply Syrian refugees in Europe with necessities such as beds and blankets. In terms of what the average student can do to help with the refugee crisis, Elkerdi explained that she believes the most important thing is to exercise the right to vote.
“If you really want to help people reasonably, I would say that we have to challenge the current status quo,” she said. “One of the things that you’ve probably heard about is the travel ban that Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper is trying to impose if he gets elected. To us, this has very dramatic consequences because a lot of people – even in the McGill community – go back to the refugee camps to volunteer, and they have family to see there.”
Elkerdi also discussed the importance of what the McGill community can offer to Syrian refugees.
“There are golden opportunities that they find here because it is a free environment,” said Elkerdi. “You’re fostering creativity and there’s free speech. I can speak up and say anything against my government without being arrested or shot – that’s a huge step forward. When people like us can meet on campus and discuss ideas, these are all things we don’t have in Syria.”
Infographics by Hayley Lim