Just prior to World War II, a young man from a small Polish village saw what many others refused to see – the real possibility of a war in which Jews would be targeted by the Nazi regime.
Wanting to live, he took matters into his own hands. Through stealth and luck he managed to make his way to Gdansk, and stowed away on a boat headed to the United States.
Velvel Farber, my father’s older brother, made it across the Atlantic. However, like many others before him, he was apprehended upon arrival and was returned to Poland. Velvel was murdered in the gas chambers of Treblinka in 1943.
Canada was no better than the United States prior to the war, turning away frantic refugees who came within miles of our shores. The 1938 story of the MS St. Louis, with its boatload of Jews mostly from Germany is just one harrowing example. Following the Cuban nullification of their transit visas, neither Canada nor the United States welcomed them and they were all returned to Europe where hundreds perished in Nazi death camps.
I come, therefore, to the issue of refugees bound by a history that speaks to callousness of democratic governments, racism and ultimate despair.
Today another refugee crisis, not seen since the ominous days of Velvel Farber and the passengers aboard the MS St Louis, has erupted onto the world’s stage.
Canada must respond to the Syrian refugee crisis and move beyond hesitation and fear to help those escaping war in Syria. Like many immigrants before, whom today make up much of Canada’s population, people arriving from Syria can make a rich contribution to Canadian society. Although the current government has pledged to match Canadian donations up to $100 million, Canada can do more.
The crisis facing us today is complex with no simple solution. However, it is one that compels a meaningful response. The Mosaic Institute, where I have recently been appointed executive director, is assembling qualified Canadians to help advise on such a response.
Canada has had a long history as a promoter of peace around the world. In my work both with the Canadian Jewish community and other communities, I have long believed in the need to engage in respectful dialogue and the vital need for good research on immigration patterns and resultant integration of newcomers to Canada.
The fact that the Mosaic Institute engages in this work was a key factor in my decision to accept the appointment. With the establishment of the “Humanity Wins” committee, chaired by Ron Atkey – former immigration minister in Joe Clark’s Conservative government and former chair of Canada’s Security, Intelligence and Review Committee – we have begun a process of dialogue and action to articulate a Canadian response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Committee members such as Ed Broadbent, Norman Inkster, Sarkis Assadourian, Hind Kabawat, and Atom Egoyan are just a sampling of those who have signed on to help.
The “Humanity Wins” committee has made three strategic recommendations to the government for consideration:
• Improve access by sending Canadian visa officials to refugee camps.
• Speed up the process by streamlining the forms, rules and regulations to move Syrian refugees here quickly.
• Contribute to a political solution by supporting the development of a sustainable and meaningful political response to the conflict in Syria.
A political solution will require both diplomatic and community-based efforts, both of which require an active role from the Canadian government. This could include convening political leaders in the region, facilitating peace talks, consulting with civil society leaders and with Canadians of Syrian background, and so on.
In memory of the victims of Canada’s history of closed borders, the immediate action of beginning the process of refugee resettlement and peace building would speak well to Canada’s reputation for leadership in trying times.