I’ll always remember the first time I spent the Christmas “holidays” in a refugee camp.
It was the early days of 1982, on the Honduran border. Close enough to spit into El Salvador, we could sometimes hear bombardments. Families had next to nothing: they had fled the army’s “scorched earth” campaigns by swimming across the bordering Rio Lempa. Tens of thousands of Salvadoran refugees huddled in makeshift huts scattered over dusty, bone-dry hills. We all slept in hammocks or on the ground. Almost equally impoverished, Honduran campesinos were the refugees’ most gracious hosts, and ours, as we gathered for liturgy on the Feast of the Epiphany.
The Delegate of the Word (catechist) led us in prayer, song and biblical reflection. Sitting in a stiflingly hot makeshift chapel, Salvadoran and Honduran peasants joined together — they knew the same hymns and had all read the biblical passages about the three Wise Men coming to find and worship the Christ Child. To my complete astonishment, the Honduran catechist began to describe me, and the priest I was travelling with, as current-day magi!
Given the living conditions, I was deathly sick — and certainly not feeling like royalty. Nonetheless, the catechist was undeterred. These foreigners had come from afar, but not on camels, even though we’d walked many miles into the border lands. We bore the gifts of solidarity — gifts of badly needed medicines, and perhaps, more importantly, would return home to raise the profile of the suffering refugees to the outside world. These gringos would not side with Herod and the powers of evil, but promised to bring the truth of the brutal war into public consciousness back in our home countries. God was with us (Emmanuel) in these border lands, and the Lord’s work in the world was still being done today through the welcoming care of these refugees.
I don’t think, all these years later, I’ve ever been referred to as a “Wise Man” again. But I did spend other Christmases among refugees. This year, many Canadians will be doing the same: more than 340 Canadian communities have received Syrian refugees, made them our friends, and welcomed them into our lives.
The Trudeau government promised to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada before 2016, and although this date was not met, the target was achieved by February. As of today, more than 35,745 Syrian refugees have come to our country under the expedited federal program. By all indications this was a substantial achievement of which we can be justifiably proud. Yet, rather than resting on our laurels, we must ensure that Canada’s response rises to the ongoing challenge.
Unfortunately, the federal government plans to take in only an estimated 25,000 refugees in 2017. Churches and private sponsorship groups are being asked to receive and settle 16,000 of these refugees. The Canadian Council for Refugees had asked Ottawa to resettle 20,000 government assisted refugees, many more than the 7,500 the federal government has agreed to accept.
Beyond the numbers, there are qualitative changes to refugee policy that our federal government should be asked to undertake. Sponsoring groups are still waiting too long for the arrival of refugee families they’ve agreed to sponsor. Refugees, other than Syrians from Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, are not being expedited in the same way. Many are hindered by the need to repay travel loans to Canada, increasing immigration fees, and high housing expenses in urban areas. Statistics Canada reports that over 34 per cent of newcomer families to Canada live in poverty — this will not be lowered as thousands of Syrians face “Month 13,” the time when their federal benefits expire and many will need to resort to inadequate provincial welfare incomes. It will not help that many settlement agencies have been told that government plans to cut their budgets next year.
This Christmas, allow yourself to contemplate some of the challenges refugees still face. The United Nations reports that a staggering 65.3 million persons worldwide have suffered forced displacement from their homes. Some 21.3 million of these are refugees, that is, persons forced to flee across a border. Eighty-six per cent of refugees have been accepted by less developed countries, often those bordering the refugee source country. Millions remain, often for decades, in underfunded refugee camps where the future looks hopelessly worse than yesterday. A very small number of these persons were lucky enough to be selected to come to Canada — and our full response to the refugee crisis must take these most vulnerable overseas populations into account.
Exactly 30 years ago, in 1986, the Nansen Medal was awarded to “the Canadian people” by the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees. The award was received because so many Canadians welcomed, housed and settled the Indochinese “boat people.” This Christmas, pray for and welcome refugees. Also, let’s act to improve Canadian policies and spending priorities so that fewer refugees remain in suffering.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, http://www.cpj.ca/, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.