I didn’t experience truly brutal winters—the ones where your face aches and your teeth rattle—until my first in Toronto, in 1997, at the age of 32. Having grown up in Beirut and Cairo, and despite eight years in England leading up to my move to Canada, I was ill-equipped to survive this country’s extreme temperatures. I had never heard of a parka until my outdoors-loving roommate showed me one; I couldn’t imagine anybody wearing something so heavy and unshapely. Then my ears nearly froze when I ventured out on a -20 C morning without a hat and in a coat designed for mild English winters.
How comforting to know that the first batch of government-sponsored Syrian refugees probably spent their first Canadian winter without worrying too much about keeping warm.
The newcomers began to arrive in December 2015 from camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. As soon as the Syrian refugees landed, officials distributed a grab bag of items. The so-called arrival kits, which were later provided to more than 25,000 refugees, included parkas and jackets for youths and adults and one- and two-piece snowsuits for infants and children, respectively.
There was more: socks, gloves, mitts, snow boots and two toques apiece (one came with a Parks Canada insignia). Along with the cold-weather gear, Syrian refugees were also given children’s books and a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Lastly, there were a number of National Film Board DVDs loaded with live-action and animated short films for children, including the beloved classics Alligator Pie and Goodnight Moon.
Refugee kits have been a traditional response to migrant crises for some time now. Their history goes back to the First World War, when the Canadian Red Cross oversaw the collection and distribution of food parcels, packages of “comforts” (sweaters, socks or scarves) and medical supplies for prisoners of war.
In the United States, several charities and aid organizations have continued the tradition, handing out kits to refugees who come into the country with “few belongings, a difficult past and high hopes for the future,” as the leading outfit among them, World Relief, tells supporters when soliciting donations.
That’s one side of America. The other, in plain view since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, is about closing the country’s doors to those fleeing war and famine, under the guise of security and border control.
With each day of Trump’s presidency, the Trudeau government’s kits emerge as a potent symbol of the widening humanitarian gap between the two countries.