A human face was put to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have been received by Canada over the past year when two of them spoke from the bimah of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on Sept. 19.
Mohammad Abdou and Myriam Keyloun described the pain of having people they know killed, losing their homes and livelihoods, and trying to rebuild in a new country.
They spoke of their gratitude to Canada, but asked that Canadians not confront them with questions about whose side they are on in the Syrian conflict, Islamic practices and the threat of radicalism.
Above all, they and their fellow refugees want to be accepted as people who are trying to get on with their lives after suffering trauma.
Abdoud is a pianist who arrived in Montreal in June 2015. Keyloun is a schoolteacher who has been here for eight months.
They were members of a panel discussion open to the public, titled “Syrian Refugee Response: Your Questions Answered,” organized by the temple with the Syrian Kids Foundation, McGill University’s international community action network and Congregation Dorshei Emet, and sponsored the Brian Bronfman Family Foundation.
The goal, according to the temple’s Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, was to clarify any misunderstanding or even to allay fears about the Syrian refugees through a frank airing of concerns.
Keynote speaker Kathleen Weil, Quebec’s minister of immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, offered a positive picture of how the refugees are adapting and the welcome Quebecers in all parts of the province have extended to them.
By Sept. 12, Quebec had received 6,302 Syrian refugees of the 31,000 that have come to Canada.
While the pace of arrivals has slowed, Weil said the government and all political parties remain committed to meeting Quebec’s target of 7,300 by the end of this year.
The other keynote speaker, Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and now a security risk consultant, expressed confidence that the screening of the refugees is effective and there is little chance the wrong people will get through.
“No corners are cut… When [there’s] doubt about anyone, they are out.”
Canada has 60 or 70 years of experience in verifying refugee applicants and is sharing intelligence with other western countries, he added. Admitting 25,000 to 35,000 people from a conflict zone is not unprecedented.
Nevertheless, Weil and Boisvert acknowledged that Canadians are worried that extremists might slip through, or that the refugees’ children will become radicalized.
Despite Quebecers’ fear of terrorism, Weil said her government announced in September, 2015 that the province would take in 7,300 Syrian refugees over the next two years. It was the first province to have a formal plan, and this was before the election of the Trudeau government that October, which would commit to 25,000 refugees by the end of the year.
The public mood was not auspicious for undertaking such a large-scale rescue, she admitted. Quebec recently had been through the bitter debate over the previous Parti Québécois government’s charter of secular values, and attitudes toward immigrants and religious minorities were not very positive.
“We did not know how [Quebecers] would react… We had to reassure them that these were people who just wanted to provide a future for their children… that these were legitimate refugees,” she said. The fear of terrorism only grew with an attack in Paris that November.
But with the humanitarian crisis unfolding on television every night, the tide soon turned, and the government started coming under pressure from Quebecers of all backgrounds to do more to help the Syrians, she said.
Today, the public sector, along with employers, community organizations and 13 municipalities, continues to help the newcomers resettle. Finding suitable employment, she admitted, remains difficult for many Syrians, but schools are playing an important role in the integration of children.
Abdou, who is working on English after learning French, said of his readjustment, “I have to work to get the life I want – it’s not easy, but it’s possible.”
Although she speaks English fluently and has family here, Keyloun said it is not simple for her either.
She had to leave Lebanon with two months’ notice and only 20 kilograms of luggage.
“Canada is far… oceans away. It’s not yet home. It takes time. Every day I wake up, I create a new reality,” she said.
Panellist, Faisal Alazem, founder and executive director of the Syrian Kids Foundation, a Montreal-based charity, said it is frustrating for refugees to deal with misperceptions about Muslims and their native country, which some Quebecers see as “an extension of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism.”
In fact, he said, Syria has been religious and culturally diverse, and Muslims range from the conservative to the secular, much like Jews.
“Mosques and churches sat side by side for 1,000 years in Syria. Those who come here are very tolerant,” said Alazem, who immigrated here. He supports democracy in Syria.
Keyloun, who wears western dress, wishes that Quebecers could look beyond the hijab. People who have already lost so much feel “scared” when they are now told how to live, she said
“This is part of their religious life. It’s what they want to do, what they know. They do not want to explain themselves… to be judged by what they look like.” That remark received applause.
Alazem congratulated Canada and Quebec for having a system in place to integrate refugees, and avoiding the mistakes of Europe, particularly France and Belgium, where migrants were “marginalized.”
The temple is still waiting for the two Syrian families it is sponsoring.