The refugee stories we all share

As I follow the ongoing coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis, I’m amazed at how much this story mirrors earlier refugee stories.

As I follow the ongoing coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis, I’m amazed at how much this story mirrors earlier refugee stories.

Only the details are different.

The crisis began in March, 2011, when civil war broke out in Syria.Since that time, more than nine million Syrians have fled their homes. More than three million are now living in nearby countries including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, while millions are displaced within Syria.

According to figures released Nov. 17, there are now 4,289,792 Syrians registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While many in Canada have been open and welcoming, there are also those who believe Canada should not accept Syrian refugees. Some are concerned that members of ISIS (the  Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) would arrive along with refugees or would seek revenge against Canada for allowing these refugees into our country. Others believe Canada has an obligation to take care of the poor and needy in this country before accepting refugees. And some are hesitant to allow Muslims into Canada.

The plight of today’s refugees, while awful, is not new. Neither are the responses, both positive and negative.

Canada has a reputation as a welcoming country. Many of us have our own family stories of how Canada has opened its doors for us, our parents, our grandparents or other ancestors.

These include the 70,000 Ukrainians who came here in the 1920s, fleeing the Stalinist purges.

They include the more than 37,000 Hungarian refugees who arrived in 1957, in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Some are among the 10,947 Czech refugees who came here in 1968 and 1969.

Others arrived in 1979 to 1980, when  60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia came to Canada.

For many of us, myself included, refugee stories are deeply personal.

My grandparents came to Canada in the 1920s as Mennonite refugees, fleeing hardships in the Soviet Union.

From 1923 to 1930, an estimated 20,000 Mennonites — German-speaking Christian pacifists — settled in Canada, and while they received a welcome from the federal government, the response from the Canadian public was not nearly as friendly. Then, as now, there was significant opposition to the federal government’s decision to accept refugees.

And yet, they were able to establish permanent homes in this country. I am eternally grateful for this kindness. There is no way I can adequately express my appreciation.

I cannot imagine how my life would have played out if my grandparents had been unable to come to Canada and had instead fled to Brazil, Paraguay or Mexico, where tens of thousands found refuge.

I cannot begin to understand what it would have been like if they had been unable to leave the Soviet Union, as was the case for so many.

The details of our stories may differ, but the quest for a better life is the common theme.

More than four million Syrians, displaced in Syria or waiting in refugee camps elsewhere, want the same thing.

They also seek a better life, free from war and civil unrest, in a peaceful and secure country.

Many of us have benefitted when generosity was extended to us or our families.

Think about how different our community and our country would be without the refugees who arrived during the past century.

We have the opportunity to shape the fabric of our community for the next generation, an opportunity to help those who need our help right now.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.


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