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Real Leaders Take Effective Action: The Syrian Refugee Crisis

September 7, 2015
Syrians The past four and a half years have been a horror show for Syrians. The Bashar al-Assad dictatorship has withstood the feeble, empty threats from President Barack Obama. Other major Western leaders have muttered their disapproval of al-Assad’s state-sanctioned slaughter of civilians, using everything in their arsenal from jet fighters to helicopter gunships to barrel bombs. The result to date has been close to a quarter million Syrian civilians killed.

At the time of writing, the European Union is struggling to respond to the refugee crisis. Over three million Syrians have escaped to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Turkey, alone, has over 2.1 million refugees. The media has shown vivid photography of boatloads of refugees attempting to land on the shores of Greece and Turkey. Hungary has taken a tough approach by shutting down its train stations and taking refugees to holding camps. Indeed, on Saturday (September 5th) Syrian refugees fled from Hungary to be welcomed with open arms by Austrians and Germans.

In Canada, your correspondent’s home country, the refugee crisis blew into the open during the first week of September with the tragic drownings of Alan and Kalib Kurdi (three and five years old, respectively) and their mother, Reham. The iconic photo of little Alan face down on a Turkish beach, later lifted into the arms of a military police officer, captivated the world (your correspondent chose not to display this photo due to its ubiquitous display and the resulting emotion it has wrought).

The boys’ parents had tried to obtain refugee status in Canada but got bogged down with red tape with the United Nations. The parents, through a relative living in Canada, had submitted a letter to Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Chris Alexander, who rejected their request. However, as the boy’s aunt, who now lives in British Columbia, stated in a news interview following their deaths, “It’s not just the fault of Canada; the whole world is to blame.”

Refugees Canada has the advantage of having the ability to be pro-active when it comes to assisting refugees. This is in contrast to Europe, which is forced into being reactive when refugees can walk across borders or take relatively short boat trips.

Unfortunately, Canada is in the midst of a federal election campaign (date set for October 19). Naturally, politicians engage in supreme hyperbole during such campaigns, and when tragedies occur such as the drowning of the little Syrian boys, fingers start getting pointed. It’s a fair comment for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to receive criticism. His Minister of Immigration has proven to be a public relations disaster when interviewed.

Minister Chris Alexander’s partisanship and disrespect to anyone who challenges him is especially reprehensible when one steps back and considers the impact of the refugee crisis and how long it has gone on. Prime Minister Harper, who managed to display some emotion during a press conference following the world-wide reporting of the boys’ drownings, still emphasized the military aspect of the refugee crisis. That’s fine, except that Canada’s contribution to fighting ISIS is nothing short of a joke (six CF-18 fighter jets and support crews were deployed overseas).

Obama Syria What has been glaringly absent during what is tantamount to a world crisis is leadership. The United States’ impotent response to assisting refugees is shocking (see below). The Republican primary, with the media’s obsession with Donald Trump, is a pornographic exercise.

Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is slowly coming to the realization that the planet has a problem. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is the only national leader who has grabbed the bull by the horns. Here’s a quick summary of what six of the G7 countries (Japan is the 7th) have done since 2011 with respect to accepting Syrian refugees to their countries:

• Germany 185,000
• France 5,000
• UK 4,866
• Canada 2,300
• U.S. 1,046
• Italy 650

Note: The focus of this leadership post is on Syrian refugees. It needs mention, however, that the United Nations estimates there were 19.5 million refugees in 2014 (up by 3 million from 2013). Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees (1.6 million). Afghanistan, which was the biggest source of refugees for three decades, was overtaken by Syria by the end of 2014.

The appallingly low number (1,046) by the United States, supposedly the greatest power on Earth, the richest country and the “Land of the Free,” would be laughable were it not for the seriousness of the problem. In terms of Syrian refugees accepted as a percentage of national population, the U.S. has admitted 0.00000332 percent. Canada isn’t much better at 0.0000657 (be sure to count the zeros). In contrast, Germany is at 0.0023 percent. A huge difference.

But leadership isn’t just needed at the national level; it’s also desperately needed at the provincial-state levels, and also at the municipal level. This is where one municipal leader shone through the haze of bureaucratic indecision many years ago. That city was Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada.

Marion Dewar Meet Marion Dewar (pictured), mayor from 1978 to 1985 (and a member of Parliament from 1986 to 1988). Previously a public health nurse, Dewar initiated Project 4000 in 1979 during the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos refugee crisis in the mid-late seventies. The project’s name represented the 4,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were brought to Ottawa and matched with Canadian sponsors. In total, Canada accepted 50,000 refugees from those countries in 1979-80.

Dewar, who died in September 2008, was a hands-on municipal leader. Project 4000 faded into Canadian history, and is unknown outside the country. Yet it is a powerful example of what a municipality can do–and indeed did accomplish–in a short timeframe. Mayor Dewar recognized there was a huge problem on the world stage: national leaders were not moving fast enough, and that action needed to be taken immediately.

Ottawa’s current mayor, Jim Watson, has revived Marion Dewar’s Project 4000 by stating that the city should consider doing something similar with the Syrian refugees. However, Watson’s tepid suggestion needs to be much bolder. Toronto’s mayor John Tory, along with at least three other mayors, has also started talking about seizing the moment to do something concrete in response to the crisis (Tory and his wife are sponsoring a family themselves).

Community and church groups are actively working to bring in sponsored refugees. Witness the story of Nabil Al Dabei, his wife, Manal, and their four children. Because they are Melkite Catholic Christians, they were in fear of persecution by Islamic jihadists in Syria. A relative, Shadi Al Khali, who lives in Canada approached several church groups to sponsor the Al Dabei family. He was finally able to get one church, St. Basils, to do so. Consider that the cost of sponsoring a family of six is around $40,000. The family now lives in Ottawa in an apartment, ready to contribute to Canadian society.

At the time of writing, protest marches are being held this weekend across Canada to insist that the federal government act immediately. Canadians, who have been asleep on the refugee crisis taking place on the other side of the Atlantic, are finally waking up. But it took the tragic deaths of two little boys and their mother and the international media’s coverage to propel people to rise up.

Marion Dewar didn’t waste time some 35 years ago when she saw an urgent need for action to address a crisis. She acted immediately.

That’s real leadership.

Don’t wait to be told what to do.

Take action. Create a partnership with those who share your vision. Then engage others.

But do something.

We cannot look at Syria, and the evil that has arisen from the ashes of indecision, and think this is not the lowest point in the world’s inability to protect and defend the innocent.

– Angelina Jolie (Actress, speaking to the UN Security Council on April 24, 2015)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 9, 2015 3:53 pm

    Blaming the US and Canada (or any other country) for “impotent response” is not productive.
    Emotions is one , but everyday life is quite different.
    Do you really think if Europe, USA and Canada accept all of these millions refugees it will solve a problem? Any problems? What about next “refugee crisis”? Just accept again? And again?
    “Love is not always productive of felicity.”
    Accepting refugees is very noble act, but what next?
    I am sorry to ask you this, but in your opinion if you will regularly clean up after your neighbors dogs, it will make your neighborhood better?

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