From Feb. 18-20, I was part of a group of 30 students and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff from across Canada who met in Ottawa for the annual MCC Student Seminar to learn about refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. We heard from United Nations staff, MPs, MCC staff who work with refugees, and volunteers who assist newcomers to Canada.
For two-and-a-half days, we learned about displaced persons, Canada’s response to their needs and ways in which we can help. Those who work intimately with refugees were able to provide insights into the steep set of challenges that refugees face. I learned many details, both about the Syrian refugee crisis and about refugees worldwide, that helped to inform my perspective on how Canadians and Canadian Christians should respond:
- First, I was shocked to learn how few refugees have the opportunity to resettle in places like Canada and how many remain in refugee camps for indefinite lengths of time. I assumed that refugee camps were places of transition, but many people stay there long enough to have children and grandchildren. I found this fact heartbreaking, but also valuable to know, as I respond to those around me who are upset, or suspicious, about the refugees the Canadian government is accepting.
So much of what news stories seem to focus on are things like security risks, the difficulty of integrating refugees or the amount of money spent on resettling Syrians that could be used to benefit the lives of Canadians. In responding to these suspicious narratives about refugee resettlement, I think it is helpful to focus on the humanity of people who have no choice but to spend huge portions of their lives with no opportunity to work, no access to education and very little hope for their future. One of the speakers, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, described the many years refugees spend in camps as “a waste of human potential.”
As Christians, we should be less concerned about our own wealth or safety, than about being God’s hands and feet, and participating in God’s work, as Jeremiah 29:11 puts it: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
- Second, I learned about the difficulties refugees face once they reach Canada. As though being displaced from their home countries because of threats of violence wasn’t enough shock and upheaval for a lifetime, they often struggle with some aspects of integration.
For this new influx of Syrian refugees, in particular, the government infrastructure for receiving refugees is sparse and disorganized, according to Jenny Kwan, the NDP critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. Because of linguistic and cultural barriers, she said refugees don’t know where to go grocery shopping, how to use public transit, or how to manage the very small living stipend that the government provides them, the same amount as a Canadian on social assistance.
These facts underscored for me how important it is to be on the lookout for those who need my help, as a Canadian and an English speaker, but also as a friend, advocate and listening ear. As a student, I can’t give much financially, but I realized that I still have time and skills that could dramatically change someone’s life for the better.
- Third, the presenters at the seminar challenged me to reconsider the way I view my rights as a Canadian. I can guard my rights jealously. I can protest that it is not my fault that I was born in a country that guarantees my rights to movement, expression and religion, and that I should not be responsible for the well-being of people I have never met because I happened to be born in a wealthy country.
On their face, these statements are logical. Nothing legally forces me to be concerned for Syrian children in refugee camps, and there is no code that sets out my obligation to ensure their rights are respected.
However, if I consider my rights as a Canadian alongside the values Jesus exemplified, I should instead be humbled that I did nothing to earn my good fortune. I should consider it the greatest and most significant expression of my rights as a Canadian that I seek to include others in the same freedom and opportunities that I enjoy.
In seeking to extend these rights as far as I can, I should avoid the temptation to fear that my own wealth or safety will be compromised. However compelling these arguments may be, they are distractions that prey on my own greed and self-interest, rather than enabling me to live as Jesus would have.
I hope that in the years ahead Canadians will be able to look back and be proud of the welcome we extended when the vulnerable needed our help the most.
Amy Matychuk, 24, lives in Calgary, where she attends Foothills Mennonite Church.