Why Greeting Syrian Refugees with Parkas and Animated Films is the Ultimate Canadian Act
The items distributed to more than 25,000 Syrian refugees say a lot about the place our country holds in the world.
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.
Had the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada six months later, during the summer, the warmer weather might have made their transition easier, but any kit would have been robbed of what made it truly Canadian.
Surviving a winter, after all, is the first test in becoming one of “us.” Whenever I meet newcomers who tell me they’ve landed in this country in cold weather, my immediate reaction is to advise them in the art of layering. These kinds of survival tips have been passed on from older to newer Canadians for centuries. They shape an important lesson of resilience: the country doesn’t come to a standstill when the temperature dips. Life goes on.
During a 2016 visit to Fort McMurray that coincided with the season’s first snowfall—in mid-October—I witnessed Somali Canadians carrying on with their routine of meeting at the Tim Hortons on Hardin Street, their unofficial community centre. Not even the harshest days in January, said one, could dissuade him and his friends from driving or walking to get their double-double.
His tip to me, the Toronto writer who underestimated Alberta’s weather? Leather gloves, not knit ones. “We’re here to stay,” says Majd AlAjji, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary in August 2015. “We must fully adapt to the new environment—just like any other Canadian.”
There’s another endurance test, one we have come to call our national cultural identity complex. We live in a country that, by and large, relegates the work of its artists to secondary status. On average, and excluding Quebec, Canadian films account for one to two per cent of total box office receipts in this country. The inclusion in the kit of a DVD of short films by the National Film Board of Canada—which has produced Oscar-winning work valued throughout the world—serves a bigger purpose than keeping young Syrian refugees entertained. For one thing, the DVD selection includes one set in English, another in French and a third without words. Nothing illustrates Canada’s commitment to inclusion as strongly as providing a third alternative that eliminates the need for both official languages.
The NFB, which opened its doors in 1939, has not only reflected Canada back to Canadians but has shaped the identities of both the country and its citizens. Over thousands of shorts and documentaries—many shown in schools across the nation and forming part of a collective childhood experience—the NFB has championed Canadian creators whose images capture the changing story of this land.
My first winter in Canada became less isolated and impoverished when I landed a one-off contract from the NFB to translate the Arabic-language portions of a documentary about feminism and Muslim women by a Canadian director of Arab heritage. As a newbie, I couldn’t understand what made this film Canadian. It wasn’t long before I realized that the NFB’s definition of Canadian-ness actually meant something broader and more diverse than what the rest of the national media offered.
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Each kit also includes a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in English, French and Arabic. Although my command of Arabic has deteriorated, I’m a native speaker, so reading the Charter in the same language that many refugees understand sends chills down my spine. Most of the rights enshrined in it—especially mobility, legal and equality—are still unthinkable in much of the Arab world and certainly in present-day Syria.
Although the war in Syria didn’t start on sectarian grounds, it quickly evolved into a conflict where Shiite and Sunni Muslims killed each other, sometimes for territory, most often just for survival. In clear and decisive language, the Charter marks the sweet spot where freedom of religion and freedom from religion meet in Canada. Its opening words hit on both the divine and the secular: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”
Some Canadians on the political right doubt whether the Syrian refugees can ever live up to the ideals of the Charter. We’re not immune to calls to close our borders, the conflation of Syrian refugees with terrorists or pleas to look after our own first—the kind of sentiments that, in part, led to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union and the rise of the far right in continental Europe and the United States. The election of Trump on an anti-refugee and anti-immigration platform suggests that the Trudeau government will have to part company with the U.S. when it comes to maintaining a more inclusive North America. How much longer the refugee welcome mat will be extended may depend on the official opposition and not the current prime minister, however.
In September 2016, less than one year after the first set of refugee landings in Canada, Kellie Leitch—then one of the candidates in the Conservative Party leadership race—was already proposing a citizenship test for all new immigrants to ensure that they shared Canadian values.
Leitch’s concept of a singular value system that 36 million people must abide by is lunacy. But if anything comes close to articulating this country’s aspirational vision, it’s the Charter. A mere 35 years old, it has already acquired the weight of an ancient holy book.
Like Canada itself, it may feel like a done deal, but it remains a work in progress. The equality of all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origins or religious beliefs, remains elusive. Indigenous peoples still lag behind the rest of the population when it comes to access to education, services, clean water and fresh food. And racial profiling of minority communities and Canadian Muslims has been facilitated by a series of “tough on crime” and anti-terror laws that violate the spirit of the Charter. (Bill C-51 comes to mind.)
While Canadians who identify as black make up about three per cent of the general population, they account for 10 per cent of the federal prison population, according to a 2015 report by the federal watchdog for the Correctional Service of Canada. Indigenous communities represent 4.3 per cent of the general population but 24.2 per cent of the federally incarcerated. Winter clothes will protect refugees from the cold, but the Charter may not always shelter them from political headwinds or institutional racism.
The kit was a confirmation of a collective humanity; it sent a message about our place in a world where other nations closed their borders to refugees. It remains to be seen if Canada will become more isolated in the wake of increasingly nationalist, anti-immigrant governments and parties in Europe, the U.S. and Australia. But I remain optimistic. Two decades after landing as an immigrant, I’ve never been more convinced that Canada is the best country in which to live, work and raise a family, no matter where you come from.
The recipients of the kits are no strangers to terror. Many Syrian refugees have suffered more from it than we in the generally stable West have. The kit is a nod to a kinder Canada and to the harsher world in which we live. I like to think it can help replace much of what the refugees have left behind: the right to a place they can call home, where they can walk the streets feeling warm and safe and, in time, start over.
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© 2017, by Kamal Al-Solaylee. From The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, Canadian Geographic and The Walrus (January 31, 2017), thewalrus.ca