Lawrence Hill is an honorary patron of Crossroads International and author of The Book of Negroes and The Illegal.
In 1973, when I was 16, I took a summer job working for the Ontario Welcome House at Pearson Airport in Toronto. Funded by the provincial government, the Welcome House assisted immigrants at the point of their arrival in Canada. My tasks were simple enough, but eye-opening: I helped newcomers find their luggage, escorted the elderly up escalators, and provided information about how to apply for health insurance and look for jobs. For newcomers who had no place to stay and no family to meet them, I lined up short-term housing in cheap motels and sent people on their way in taxis.
For a teenager from the suburb of Don Mills, it was radical experience. Ugandan president Idi Amin – a murderous dictator if there ever was one – had expelled Ugandan Asians the year before, declaring that they were of the wrong race and class. Canada agreed to accept thousands of Ugandan refugees, and many were still flowing through Pearson airport the summer I worked there. Several years earlier, Canada had relaxed its immigration policies, so I also saw many black immigrants (and visitors) arriving from Caribbean nations. They too got in, but were often made to sit in a waiting room for hours and hours. Quiet, silent, and dignified.
The experience ignited my desire to travel, and to connect with people in the black diaspora well beyond Toronto. Within six years, I began a lifelong connection as a volunteer with Crossroads International, a small, non-profit Canadian group that has devoted itself for more than 50 years to promoting grassroots community and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa and in Bolivia. Travelling with Crossroads to Niger, Cameroon, Mali and Swaziland – initially to participate in community tree-planting projects, and later to support initiatives to address sexual violence against girls and women – has changed my life forever. It gave me a chance to meet African people, to work alongside them, to share meals, to dance and laugh, and also to feel and recognize our shared humanity.
Many Canadians have the opportunity to travel the world. But we have been even more deeply enriched by the world as it comes to us. And sometimes it arrives in a stark image that shakes us out of our complacency, and makes us recall that people around the world have needs, cares and human worth – just like us.
Refugees have been fleeing Syria for years. Some four million have fled the country and still more Syrians have been displaced within their own nation. But the photo of one neatly dressed boy, lifeless on a Turkish beach, has vaulted around the world. Could this be the catalyst which, like the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm bomb in South Vietnam, forces us to insist that our governments reflect our compassion and values?
We could do much, much more. We should, and we must. We should live up to the promises we have made – so far undelivered – to accept thousands of Syrian refugees. And then we should increase our quotas and meet them too. We have room for more people. We should send officials in large numbers into refugee camps to process people more expeditiously, cut through red tape, and bring them more quickly to Canada. It's possible. We've done it before. We should demand greater action on the part of our politicians, not just to respond to the crises of famine, war and natural disasters but also to invest more in international development. By helping people develop stronger social and economic infrastructures in their own countries, we help them develop peaceful, organized means to cope with their own crises.
The refugee crisis that rocks the world today belongs to the world. And it belongs to Canada. For one thing, many active, engaged Canadians come from the countries most affected. For another, we have fought in wars – in Afghanistan, for example, and we are now participating in air strikes in Syria – that add to the mayhem forcing people to flee. And we have signed onto refugee conventions committing us to humanitarian principles and action with regard to accepting and assisting refugees. Most important, we owe it to ourselves to respond. To remember what it means to be human. To remember what it means to be Canadian.