Displacements, an IMRC podcast series

Conversation with Margaret-Walton Roberts, co-editor of "A National Project: Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Canada" and Bayan Khatib of the Syrian Canadian Foundation

Episode Notes

Alison Mountz, IMRC's Director chats with Margaret Walton-Roberts, Professor of Geography at Wilfrid Laurier University about her new co-edited book with Leah Hamilton and Luisa Veronis, A National Project: Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Canada published by McGill-Queen's University Press in August 2020. Joining in on the conversation as well is Bayan Khatib, Executive Director of the Syrian Canadian Foundation.

Episode Transcription

Shiva Mohan [00:00:11] Welcome, listeners, to the fourth installment of the International Migration Research Centre's podcast, Displacements. On this episode, Alison Mountz, Director of the IMRC, chats with Bayan Khatib, Executive Director of the Syrian-Canadian Foundation, and Margaret Walton-Roberts, Professor of geography at Wilfrid Laurier University, about Margaret's new coedited book with Leah Hamilton and Luisa Veronis "A National Project: Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Canada", published by McGill-Queens University Press in August 2020. 

[00:00:49] Let's join in on their conversation. 

Alison Mountz [00:00:54] Welcome Bayan and  Margaret to our podcast and thank you both for being here. Congratulations on this new book, Margaret. It's very exciting to have a chance to discuss it, especially since the Hill Times in Ottawa named it as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of 2020. So congratulations! 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:01:14] Thank you. 

Alison Mountz [00:01:15] There's been a lot of discussion lately, both in Canada, nationally and internationally, of course, about the fact that the Syrian war has now been going on for 10 years. And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about this anniversary of conflict and what it means to you, what you've been thinking about in the work that you do. 

Bayan Khatib [00:01:39] Sure. So for me, the 10 year anniversary of how all of this crisis began is a very important time to reflect on the struggle of the Syrian people and how all of this began. It started with children writing freedom slogans on their school walls. And they were inspired by the Arab Spring, which had been going on for a few months, and neighboring countries. Those children were arrested by the government in Syria and tortured, which led to an uprising first in their town and then all over the country. Those protests in the streets were met with violence, and the government had quite a brutal response to the people's request for freedom in Syria. And it started with shooting at protesters on the street and then shooting at the funerals of those who died in those protests. And then eventually bombs started to be dropped on civilians. And it wasn't just by their government. It was also Syria became a proxy war for all sorts of countries internationally. And like Russia, Iran, the European Union, America, different countries started to drop bombs in Syria on civilians for their own interests. And so Syria became basically, not inhabitable anymore. And that led to the refugee crisis. And millions of Syrians fled Syria to neighboring countries. And then those who wanted to escape from the very difficult living circumstances in neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan, where they really were not welcomed. They tried to escape to Europe and then and Canada, of course, was a dream place for them to come. And luckily, the Canadian government and the Canadian public became interested in helping some of those refugees come here. 

Alison Mountz [00:03:32] That's really helpful background on the history of the conflict and displacement. As you note in the book, over four million people at this point. Margaret, I wonder from your perspective as a migration and refugee studies scholar who's focused on this issue, what this 10 year marker means to you? 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:03:53] Yeah, I think it's very interesting to hear Bayan's reflection on what was happening in Syria. And as someone who's who's outside of Syria looking at what's been going on, the sense is such a failure of global response, global governance, reaction, and particularly the issue about the way in which Syria has become a sort of proxy war for so many other, so many other particular interests, national interests. And so the absolute human tragedy of this grand scale geopolitics is really unfathomable. And it's so sad to see 10 years later, we still, there has still has not been a resolution of this. And that really goes to the heart of so many failures. 

Alison Mountz [00:04:43] So, Margaret, you're talking about the failures of the global community to address this conflict. But there have also, of course, been some successes and national efforts to support people who have been displaced. And this brings us to the role of the response here in Canada to conflict in Syria and displacement on such a large scale. For those who haven't had an opportunity to read your book yet, or for those who don't know as much about this recent history in Canada, if you both might tell our listeners a bit about the history of resettlement of Syrians here in Canada. Margaret, maybe you could start us off. 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:05:25] Yeah, our book is an edited collection that was really developed to reflect the contribution from both Immigration, Refugee Citizenship Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. They had recognized how the Syrian refugee resettlement process was a very important sort of historic event, and they offered short term rapid response grants to many scholars. I think about twenty seven projects were funded. The idea of the edited book was really to find a way to capture this event and to detail what happened in terms of community responses in Canada. So the edited book, "A National Project" is less about Syria itself and events in Syria, but more about the Canadian response, and more about learning something about Canadian nation building, and this as it says, a national project which was ready to reflect the then immigration minister John McCallum's call. At the time, he said this is not a federal project, the idea of the Syrian refugee resettlement. He said this is not a federal project. It's not even a government project. This is a national project that will involve all Canadians. And it was that phrase that he used that we used in the title of the book. You know, recognizing that nationality often underscores civil conflicts of the type that we've seen in Syria and elsewhere. But it's also a moment to capture some of the more virtuous activities that can be undertaken under the auspices of the idea of a nation, of a coming together of communities to address what they see as a wrong. And that's kind of where the title of the book comes from. And we did grapple with that idea, but we wanted to respect the fact that the Canadian nation came together and it was really about communities as well as the government that made this happen. 

Bayan Khatib [00:07:36] I totally agree that the Canadian response to the Syrian refugee crisis was truly incredible, with so many different pieces coming together beautifully to make this a successful experience. So not only did the government make a commitment to bring twenty five thousand Syrian refugees to Canada in record time, but the public was also very keenly interested in doing something to help Syrian refugees. And the media had put out some very poignant stories that added to this momentum. And it kind of all came together. And then there was the pathways, which was very unique to Canada, having the pathway of bringing refugees here that involve private sponsors. I believe that Canada is the only country that has a private sponsorship program for refugees, although now several other countries are piloting similar pathway. But this was what kind of made Canada really stand out because different segments of Canadian society were able to come together and form sponsor groups, faith groups, mosques and synagogues and churches and universities and book clubs and sport teams all came together, pooled in some money and brought in families. And then they also took responsibility for after the families arrived. Of course, there were some challenges along the way. It wasn't a perfect story, but I would say overall it was a really beautiful experience and one that the rest of the world can learn from. 

Alison Mountz [00:09:12] Great! And in fact, we were discussing the notion that while the government promised to bring in some twenty five thousand people for resettlement, in fact, the numbers who have been resettled and sponsored to date now is up to about 70 thousand. And as you note, Bayan and Margaret, this is a remarkable national response that has captured a lot of global attention in terms of other countries modeling Canada's unique publi- private sponsorship. Margaret, from the perspective of editing all of these wonderful chapters for your collection. Could you tell us a little bit more about the experiences for those people who were involved as sponsors in the project? 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:10:00] Yeah, we have some really fabulous chapters. All of the chapters are great stories. They range from coast to coast, although we don't have much on British Columbia. But we do have stories from Newfoundland, stories from New Brunswick, from Quebec, and the private sponsors story is a really interesting one. And I think, as Bayan said, it is it's something to be proud of. It's not always a perfect story. But in some ways, I think the benefit of reflecting on these episodes is to understand that we are always kind of becoming, it's always in progress, we can always improve. And so even with the private sponsorship, some of the stories talk about the kind of stresses and strains, the relationships between refugees and their sponsors. And I think the federal government has recognized some of the problems with the private sponsorship approach. I mean, it is a really important success story in many ways, because it does ground the relationship between communities, between groups of people, between churches, and it allows them to express their desire and the support for the resettlement of refugees, and that is so important to success in the long run, but there are always some problems. There's some problems of sort of exploitation. Perhaps there's problems of some privately sponsored refugees not necessarily getting the sorts of services that would be necessary for them. And so there's always ways in which these programs can be improved and deeper better connections to all kinds of services can be developed. So certainly within the chapters in the text book, there are some important stories, especially issues of agency. You know, thinking about how refugees express their own agency. And sometimes the relationship with the sponsor might be deemed to be a little too kind of parental, as it were, and too patronizing. And the place of refugee agency is really also important in this story. 

Alison Mountz [00:12:12] You note in the book that people under the age of 18 were a significant proportion of those who were resettled in families, of course. Bayan I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about the experiences of those who came through the program?

Bayan Khatib [00:12:26] Well, I think part of the problem is that it all happened so fast and most of us did not have enough time to prepare because it was a commitment by the government. It was an election issue, and they wanted to do it in this record time. And so a lot of times that created very interesting challenges, not only on the front in Canada, but even for refugees abroad. I heard stories from families that told me, you know, we got notified by the Canadian government that we've been chosen to come to Canada and they told us we've got to make a decision within two weeks and pack our bags and be on a plane within a few days. Imagine making that sort of decision for your family within the span of a few days and suddenly finding yourself in a brand new country. That also doesn't allow a lot of time for the settlement services that occur before refugees travel to Canada. A lot of them arrived here with very high needs. Syrian refugees were coming from war zones. They were coming from very harsh environments of refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. And so not only did they have very high medical needs and mental trauma needs, but they also had very, very little preparation time for their arrival and a brand new country and a very large segment of them didn't speak a word of English. And of course, language is the number one barrier for many refugees arriving here in Canada. So, yeah, those are those are some of the challenges  that came up.

Alison Mountz [00:14:05] And we've talked a bit about the uniqueness of this process for this community. I wonder if there are other particular issues or services that were designed to respond to some of the challenges that you just mentioned Bayan.

Bayan Khatib [00:14:21] We were all scrambling to just like keep up. I remember when one of the temporary housing locations for the arrival of government sponsored Syrian refugees was a place called the Toronto Plaza Hotel. And I remember the scene of like dozens of families, hundreds of people in the hotel lobby. And there was quite a bit of chaos and outpouring of volunteers. So the beautiful thing was that there was such a huge desire in the community to come and be a part of the settlement and and support and volunteer. But we didn't have time to organize properly. And there was a lot of chaos and that that created a lot of challenges. But I would say, you know, at the end of the day, I am very glad that the government did this. I'm very glad that Syrian refugees had an opportunity to start safe and and happy lives here in Canada. 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:15:17] Yeah, maybe I can follow up with what Bayan is saying, because certainly in our book, we have many insights from different communities. And it's, it is a common story about the speed and the rapidity with which communities had to orient themselves toward the resettlement of newcomers of refugees coming from Syria. But the story seems to be very much one of people stepping forward, of people wanting to volunteer, of people wanting to help, of people wanting to sponsor refugees. And so there's this great groundswell of community willingness and desire to be part of this, especially if you remember that we were coming out of the kind of Harper conservative government which had been very suspicious of refugees and and the process of refugees and asylum claims. And so the public was really on board with the idea of we need to do something. And so there was great willingness and the mobilization of the immigrant receiving sector, these civil societies that do so much work for immigrant and refugee resettlement was really quite profound. They organized themselves, they collaborated. They were able to articulate the goodwill of their communities and their volunteers into effective processes that could really help with this resettlement, even though, as Bayan says, it was a little chaotic at times and there is a concern about the rapidity with which it happened, to the extent that some people felt like it was really a political crisis, not not so much a crisis in terms of the resettlement process. But I think at the end of the day, there was there were so many stories and the chapters in the text tell stories from communities like the Monkton, remote communities in northern Ontario, where there are such fascinating stories about collaboration and a coming together in order to make this work. And I think that's the really interesting story that comes out of the National Project in response to this crisis, was a community response that was really grounded in a number of people stepping forward. 

Bayan Khatib [00:17:30] I'd like to add something to what you said, Margaret. I just remember this moment when I was at a church in Toronto with dozens of persons from various sponsor groups across the GTA, and they had invited a representative from Minister McCallum's office and he was on stage talking about how we're going to do this and the private sponsorship process. Everybody sitting in the audience started to shout at him, bring our families home!, bring them now!, bring them now! And the Canadian public, the sponsor groups that formed one of these families to come to Canada so quickly, they were very anxious for them to come here. Because they knew what kind of difficult circumstances they were living in. And so partially due to the pressure from the public and from the sponsor groups, they sped everything up. They expedited everything. And so a lot of it came from pressure from the public. 

Alison Mountz [00:18:26] So we've talked about some of the challenges of resettlement. But I know that there have also been many success stories. And I wonder if you might share just a couple of those. Bayan would you like to start? 

Bayan Khatib [00:18:39] Sure. Recently, the Syrian Canadian Foundation hosted a really big five year anniversary celebration of the arrival of Syrians in Canada. And during our event, we highlighted some wonderful success stories of refugees who started businesses, of refugees who've done so much to give back to their communities, such as starting blood drives for Syrians across Canada. And that event was attended by over 800 people from across Canada, and it was live streamed onto Facebook, and the Facebook livestream had over half a million views, which was absolutely incredible. But it still tells me that people across Canada still very much care about Syrian refugees and about refugees in general, and that they perceive the five year anniversary as a celebration and that they wanted to be a part of it. And so I just take that as a very wonderful sign that Canada has perceived this experience positively and as a success. 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:19:40] Yeah, I just think I've been very interested in the experiences of Tariq Hadhad, who is one of, his family owns Peace by Chocolate, and they are based out in Nova Scotia. He's a wonderful speaker, I've heard him speak at a number of events. And their family story about their they had a chocolate factory in Syria that was destroyed. And then when they came to Canada, they started with a very small outlet to kind of make and sell chocolate. I think just this year, they've opened a new store and they are really excited with how things are going in terms of the success of their business. And so I think it's in some ways really a testament to the ability for this refugee process in Canada to provide a new home for folks to come and settle and to thrive and succeed. And there are many other stories, and I know Bayan is friends with Mustafa Alio, and so he's the co-founder of the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project in Toronto. And so I think the recognition that has been given is really testament to so many successes. And I think this is this is another really good news story that we can and we can look forward to more of these going forward. 

Bayan Khatib [00:21:00] And Mustapha himself came to Canada as a refugee many years ago. And so he was really passionate about starting Jumpstart Refugee talent. And he was also co-founder of the Syrian Canadian Foundation. 

Alison Mountz [00:21:13] You've both spoken about all that is hopeful and of the support and enthusiasm that was so widespread, and of aspects of this history that were beautiful. And that really brings me to the cover of this edited collection, which you note in the text is published as the cover of your book, with the permission of the artists who created this work, who are five grade nine students in northern Ontario in the small township of Red Rock, one hundred K from Thunder Bay. And I want to quote your text here. Just one sentence, Margaret. You say, we were interested in using this image because we believe it reflects the hope of resettlement, not the devastation of displacement. And in the artwork, is on the cover, we see symbols, symbols of collaboration and hope, there are images from flags, people climbing stairs, all kinds of imagery. And I think it's really inspiring to think about, as you've noted, the role of young people, both in terms of setting off the crisis with hopes for social change and forms of creative expression, but also in terms of their role in this resettlement process and here in Canada. And I wonder if you could speak to that? 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:22:33] Looking at the role of young people, absolutely was profound. I think the fact that so many refugees who were resettled were under the age of 18. I think the Canadian public were deeply moved by so many images of loss that they saw, that they witnessed that involved children. I mean, it was sort of so horrific in terms of the experiences of people trying to escape from Syria, trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. And those images are seared on so many people's minds, I think. And for us, the image we wanted to share on the book... And the book is, as I mentioned, the sort of as a as a handbook, if you like, of what happened and how did it happen. And we wanted that lasting impression to be one of permanent resettlement. We wanted it to be one of optimism. We wanted it to be one that said there is a future that can be full of joy and optimism for people. And so we really held onto that hope. And the fact that there were so many young people within the cohort of refugees who have been resettled is important for us to understand and will be going forward. And so I think that image on the front of the book is really a testament to trying to hold on to the optimism of young people, not just the Syrian refugees themselves, but the young Canadians who are also part of this experience. And I think that's why the image is interesting, because those students were using art to try and process and express their thoughts and understandings of what was happening in terms of the Syrian conflict and the role that Canada could play in trying to offer asylum and sanctuary to those refugees. 

Alison Mountz [00:24:23] And Bayan? 

Bayan Khatib [00:24:24] Sure. These youth have a lot of stories to tell, and they want to tell their own stories and in their own ways, and so we turn to art based programing as a way to provide these youth with an opportunity to express themselves and to talk about their own journeys. One of the events that we did was in partnership with Art Heart, and it was called "Our Art, Our Stories". It was an initiative by one of our former SCF employees, Osama Khatib. And what he did was provide visual art classes for youth and then they would create pieces of art that reflected their feelings and experiences. And then we had a big art exhibit in Toronto during where they were able to sell their artwork. And it was a really wonderful experience for them to be able to not only create these art pieces, but to be able to sell them as well. And many of them did sell. And then the other program that we ran was called the FlashForward Photo Voice Program. And here we trained refugee youth to learn how to take photos. We gave them cameras and we taught them how to take photos. And they were supposed to document their integration journeys in Canada. We did want them to be able to talk about their experiences in Syria, but we also wanted to shift their thinking to be able to explore their integration journey here in Canada. So we took them on various field trips as well. And and they took photos of things that help them define what home means to them here in Canada. 

Alison Mountz [00:25:59] That's so exciting. I know this has been a recurring theme in our recent podcasts, the idea that art is something that not only offers a medium of creative self-expression, but also a platform for dialogue and an opportunity to bring people together. And I think it's something that we're all craving so much right now. So we've been really focused on commemorating all that has come to pass, both the devastation of conflict and violence over these past 10 years, as well as the mass displacement of so many people and the positive experiences and roles of resettlement here in Canada. But I wonder if we could also remember that this is an ongoing lived experience for people and that resettlement and integration settling in a new community and a new home. These are experiences that involve many kinds of challenges. So I wonder if you could tell us a bit about what challenges Syrians continue to face today in twenty twenty one moving forward? Bayan? 

Bayan Khatib [00:27:06] I think something that is very important to remember about the experience of Syrian refugees who have arrived here in Canada is that they're very unlike immigrants who arrive in Canada because Syrian refugees are coming from a warzone. Many of them are coming from refugee camps where they lived in very difficult circumstances. And a lot of them have arrived here with serious trauma, mental health challenges, sometimes physical injuries that have really made their integration very, more challenging than your regular immigrant who arrives in Canada. So I think that one of the problems I noticed in my work at the Syrian Canadian Foundation is that there weren't enough culturally customized services for these refugees, especially services that take into account language barriers, the mental health stigma that, you know, is very prominent in the Syrian community. A lot of concerns that people in the refugee community had about privacy when talking about mental health issues. And so it was very challenging for us to find resources to meet the needs of of refugees when it came to mental health services. 

[00:28:23] And then that also applied to other services as well. So even if you think of even language training, for example, Canada is very standard and how it delivers language training, it's the LINC classes and the ALS classes that are offered in all of the big settlement agencies across the country. But what I noticed in my work is that those classes just were not accessible to all refugees. Some refugees who are coming with trauma and PTSD cannot focus in a big classroom setting, and some of them have other types of learning challenges. Some of them have family responsibilities where it's impossible for them to leave their homes. And so I realize that, you know, those those kind of standardized settlement services are not always a perfect fit for refugees coming from a war zone. And that was one of the things we tried to do at the Syrian Canadian Foundation, is we developed very customized services to the vulnerable newcomers that really just, that weren't finding these services at the same agencies accessible to them. I would say that the other major stressor of the Syrian refugees is that they left so many loved ones behind in a war zone or in those refugee camps or in those neighboring countries where Syrians are not welcomed and treated very poorly. And that is very stressful, no matter how comfortable you are. If your loved one is living in that kind of a circumstance, it's very hard to feel good. And so family reunification and the Canadian government did start to offer some pathways for that, was very, very helpful and important to the successful integration of the refugees who did arrive here. But I think more of that would be really great as well. 

Alison Mountz [00:30:13] So on the one hand, we've talked about how unique this displacement and resettlement process has been for Syrians coming to Canada, and on the other hand, I know that there are really important lessons for Canada and other countries, other members of the global community, to learn from this resettlement process. Margaret, I wonder if you could just speak to some of those lessons that can be learned? 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:30:39] Yeah, I think Bayan's comments on the difficulties that they have observed and their response toward these customized services is in itself a really important lesson. I mean, Canada's immigration system is effectively a partnership between all levels of government and between all members of society. So the immigrants and refugees serving societies are often themselves based in the ethnic and linguistic communities that refugees come and immigrants come and settle into, and they reflect kind of civil society. So I think an important lesson learned is that one size does not fit all, that you need to have a broad based involvement of all sectors of society involved in the process. For exactly the reasons I think being highlighted. There are always going to be sort of certain nuances that will become a surprise. And I think the surprise when the Syrian refugee resettlement process started, were things like the large size of families. So housing became an issue and people had to respond to that. I think the levels of literacy and so on, as we've discussed, and so lessons learned are to be prepared for everything. But if you have this very broad based, responsive system that really incorporates what, you know, Immigration and Refugee Citizenship Canada has called it a whole of society approach, which is, I think, an important way to think about this. We have a commitment. Canada is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Refugees, and we have a responsibility to meet that agreement. And in order to do so, we need to draw upon all of the aspects of society that we can. 

Alison Mountz [00:32:39] Thank you so much that such an important reminder of why this history and these stories are so important for not only governments and not only the Canadian government, but for really for all governments to pay attention to and for all Canadians to learn from. Thank you so much, both of you, for sharing the work that you do. 

Bayan Khatib [00:33:01] Thank you, Alison. 

Margaret Walton-Roberts [00:33:02] Yeah, thank you, Alison. 

Alison Mountz [00:33:05] You've been listening to my conversation with Margaret Walton Roberts and Bayan Khatib about the new book, "Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Canada: A National Project", and about some of the issues facing Syrians and other newcomers to Canada. Please join us for our next conversation with William Walters about his new book, "The Production of Secrecy: States of Opacity". This has been an episode of the Immerses podcast Displacements. Thanks for listening.