Omar Mouallem is an Edmonton-based writer and the author of the forthcoming book Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas.
Since 2015, Canada has become a new home for more than 76,000 Syrians displaced by civil war, and they’re already forming visible communities. I’ve seen that here in Edmonton, where I often meet or recognize new Syrians whenever I take my kids to the park or shop for Middle Eastern ingredients. We might exchange a few niceties in “Arabisi” – a pidgin of their broken English and my broken Arabic – as our kids run amok.
Living in the inner city, and tied to the Arab community through my Lebanese heritage, these encounters have become so regular that I probably wouldn’t remember my first brush with a Syrian refugee if it weren’t so painfully vivid.
In 2014, my wife and I were taking the train back to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport after a long summer vacation when a man picked me out from the crowd on board. He greeted me – Marhaba, or hello – and after making some small talk, he told me he needed 10 or 20 Euros for his family.
I said I didn’t have cash, which I believed to be true, but I did not go through the act of opening my wallet for him. Privately, I felt he was asking for too much money, but I couldn’t suppress another part of me that drew from deeply rooted Lebanese prejudices that cautioned against guileless Syrians. I’d heard them often during my stays in the homeland, and evidently I had neither forgotten nor fully extinguished them.
But when we arrived at the airport, the beggar followed us into the terminal with his hands out, imploring me to make an ATM withdrawal.
I finally snapped – “I said, ‘No!’ " – and it took us both aback. Then, with pure disappointment, he said: “Mish mithli.” You’re not like me.
My self-disgust was sharp and sour. It felt even worse when I was on the plane, and I pulled a €10 bill from my pocket.
I am a Canadian citizen. Why can’t my son be a Canadian citizen, too?
Private sponsorship is much more than a feel-good project
The shameful memory jolted back a year later, in 2015, when I saw the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body face-down on a beach in Turkey. Why did it take a child’s death for me to donate toward refugee relief, when I could not spare it when a parent like Alan’s father asked me for it directly? I felt like I owed it to that man, whoever and wherever he is, to help rebuild his life.
I happened to be looking into Arabic literacy lessons at the time, and instead of enrolling in a course, I thought it might be redemptive to hire a private tutor from the new Syrian community. I reached out to an acquaintance working at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, who put me in touch with Jamal Alebrahim, who just so happened to be around the same age as the father on the train.
Jamal was an out-of-work electrical engineer – an oil and energy professional with strong English who came to the right place at the wrong time. He agreed to teach me in the basement-suite home he shared with his wife Hala and his two young daughters. I’m embarrassed to say that I “dropped out” after three months, but we stayed in touch, though often just to make unsuccessful plans to meet for a drink.
When we finally managed to get together again at a coffee shop in October, 2019, the federal election was in full swing. The key issues were comfortingly plain compared with the election before, in 2015, when the topic of refugees and “Canadian values” were hot to the touch. That election insulted many racialized Canadians, myself among them, who felt our ethnicity, faith, citizenship or residency were under attack and on the ballot. Seeing Canadians resoundingly elect the Liberal Party, which had promised to resettle the most Syrian refugees, renewed my faith in my fellow countrymen.
The consequences of the 2015 election were much greater for Jamal and his family. They were among the 25,000 Syrians that Justin Trudeau had promised to resettle as part of his party’s winning campaign, a number that his government proceeded to overdeliver on by a few hundred. The Alebrahims arrived a few months later, after enduring two years of asylum limbo in Lebanon. When we finally got together, just before the pandemic, he told me he’d helped resettle two siblings, was working on bringing more family to Canada, and was about to experience one of his biggest transformations yet: taking a Canadian citizenship test in the hopes of publicly swearing to another set of rules and another way of being.
To hear Jamal’s updates – that he was now a salaried and mortgaged man – delighted me, but not as much as knowing his family were becoming Canucks. It humoured him more. “Soon,” joked Jamal, “I’ll be like a real Canadian: struggling to pay the bills, busy running here and there.”
He wasn’t able to cast a vote in Canada in 2019 – while his citizenship test would take place before election day, the government requires months to process new Canadians – but I asked him who he’d choose if he could. I felt confident that he’d name the governing Liberals; I’d assumed that getting Jamal’s family out of a miserable situation would’ve secured the Liberals at least two supporters. Indeed, my own Lebanese immigrant father, who arrived in Canada in 1971 thanks to Trudeau père’s immigration policies, voted for the Liberals 12 consecutive times. And Trudeau Senior’s policy didn’t even pull him from a war zone, as it did my mother – another Liberal lifer – or Jamal.
But his answer surprised me. “Conservative,” he said. “I’m an economy guy. You can’t have a stable country without economic security.” (Spoken like a true Albertan.)
As we lightly debated immigration policy, I realized that my presumptions were rooted in something troubling – that I felt Jamal owed the Liberals something that I did not.
Gratitude, or the sense that it is owed, can be weaponized. The pressure to perform it in the ways that are expected of us is amplified for a country’s foreigners, who may fear being called out as ingrates if they complain at all about, say, unequal conditions. The idea that they should just be grateful to be here creates the expectation that they should be silent when facing a bureaucratic hurdle, a discriminatory boss, an unsavoury neighbour. It can coax them into abandoning their values, political or otherwise. At the same time, gratitude is a fine metric of our success as a welcoming society. After all, you know you’ve given a good gift when you get gratitude in exchange.
The problem – or one of them, at least – is that Canadians too often see refugee programs as purely altruistic gifts, and not, for instance, as potential acts of reparation. In doing so, we ignore any consideration that giving refuge to people displaced by war, persecution, or extreme weather could be a redress for injustices that occurred while we looked away – or, in many cases, were directly involved in the life-or-death circumstances that led them to leave home. We may not think of domestic issues as having global consequences, but our disproportionately high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, for example, or our government-approved sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, have consequences that, despite being invisible to us, are materially real.
Gratitude and indebtedness plays into everyone’s understanding of the refugee issue, even if we’re unaware of it. If Canadians believe refugees owe something that they do not, it may breed resentment of newcomers; if refugees expect something from social services that charities or government can’t deliver on, they may grow resentful of their host country. The antagonism only festers when there’s dissonance between what we as Canadians owe to refugees, against what they believe we owe – and what they owe Canada as a host country, against what Canadians believe they should owe. In other words, there’s a gratitude gap – and if it’s left unaddressed while refugee numbers grow, the gulf could only widen and further polarize the population.
Although it’s rarely the No. 1 concern for voters, refugee resettlement has been a hot-button topic for the past three national elections, and a “remarkably steady” one, according to a 2019 Environics Institute survey. Nearly equal numbers of Canadians agree and disagree that refugees are a drain on the system; that most refugee claimants are illegitimate; that immigrants do not adopt Canadian values.
The issue of refugees has proven to be remarkably divisive for a populace that by and large agrees that multiculturalism is core to our national identity, and that overwhelmingly believes immigration is good for the economy. Refugee resettlement, however, is an issue that’s adjacent to multiculturalism and immigration, and the topic tends to categorize people differently, and into one of two camps: those who ask themselves “what do we owe to refugees?” and those who ask “what do refugees owe us?” That is, do refugees owe a positive contribution to the economy, or to the community? Do refugees owe their host country and new neighbours gratitude – and, if not, do they owe anything at all?
That question is more than hypothetical; it’s an ethical concern that will require an urgent consensus. At 82.4 million people worldwide, the number of internationally and internally displaced people has nearly doubled the number of Europeans left behind by the Second World War. The 21st-century forces uprooting people in the Global South, where 85 per cent of refugees live and mostly remain, have yet to inspire a solidarity movement like the postwar actions that gave birth to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol.
Here in Canada, an average of 25,000 refugees have been resettled per year since 2015. Ottawa has just announced plans to expedite the acceptance of refugees based on the job skills they’d bring to Canada, and to nearly double its 2021 goal by accepting 45,000 “protected persons” – that is, asylum seekers currently in the country – in part to make up for the unusually low number of people admitted during the first year of the pandemic.
But that’s just a drop in the bucket for the crisis the whole world is facing, which will only be made worse by climate change and sustenance scarcity. A huge number of climate change’s refugees will originate from the lower half of the western hemisphere, but it will drive many North Americans to seek refuge far from home, too. Increasing instances of wildfires, floods and droughts will force every living Canadian to put faces to the numbers – and they might find their own there. That will force us to ask: What do we owe to each other?
The United Nations has little to say on the civil obligations of refugees. A one-clause, one-sentence article in the UN’s Refugee Convention reads: “Every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations, as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order.” There’s no specification for what measures the state can or cannot take, nor what is owed if the state itself does not conform to international laws and regulations.
To grapple with the crisis, the UN Migration Agency considered some other terms governing refugees in 2016. In addition to complying with the host countries’ laws and regulations, the agency concluded that refugees must also apply for residence and respect mandatory integration programs, such as Canada’s English-as-second-language education. However, the UN also concluded there’s no obligation on refugees to integrate into the host country’s society per se.
But do refugees even owe that much? Two recent policy books published on the matter – David Owen’s What Do We Owe To Refugees? and Jennifer Kling’s War Refugees: Risk, Justice, and Moral Responsibility – argue that refugees simultaneously owe much less and much more to society. Both authors also submit that whatever refugees do owe, it is much less than what is owed to them by wealthy countries.
A political and moral philosopher who is a professor at the University of Colorado, Ms. Kling argues that a simple policy of non-refoulement – that is, a country’s promise not to return refugees to a country where they would be in danger – misses the point of refuge. “Refugees ought to have their basic human rights protected and, in general, deserve a chance for a minimally decent life,” she writes. Refugees deserve this because their rights have been violated, and a minimally decent life both requires and deserves reparations owed for the former. Thus, deciding what the Global North is obligated to provide – especially when its countries are, often complicit, if not directly the cause of their displacement -- is less a matter of humanitarianism than justice.
Ms. Kling reframes refugees as victims of war instead of collateral damage, and in doing so, it becomes easier to consider her uncommon views. “Refugees have no obligation to be grateful,” Ms. Kling argues. “Gratitude is the correct response to charity, not justice, and so demands for refugees’ (perpetual) gratitude are simply mistaken, in addition to being oppressive and insulting.”
More provocative is Ms. Kling’s belief that refugees “do not have obligations to follow the laws and policies of the states that they come to inhabit, because they do not know them.” They are still “causally” responsible for their actions, however – assuming otherwise further dehumanizes them. She also argues that war refugees bear some responsibility for resisting potential injustice or oppression in their host country, to “foster, validate and express their self-respect.”
Such an obligation to activism is a lot to ask of anyone, especially a refugee. Yet Mr. Owen, a political theorist at the University of Southampton, comes to this conclusion, too. If refugees potentially violate some obstacles to secure their safety or well-being, those acts “should be viewed as an act of transnational civil disobedience … [to] coerce non-cooperating states into the performance of their responsibilities,” he writes.
Mr. Owen also takes the justice position on refugee rights, declaring that host countries should demonstrate moral solidarity with refugees of all kinds, including “those whose lives are threatened by natural disasters rather than by human ones.”
The refugee-host country relationship, by its legal definition, holds that the latter is responsible for giving the former safe haven. It’s necessarily unequal, but not inherently one-sided. Even if non-citizens can’t vote, serve jury duty, or live here for the long term, they can still contribute to society. But do they have to? And, if so, what should they get in return? What law, established or unwritten, should set the terms, so that the gratitude gap isn’t left to fester and grow?
In Canada, the obligations of every new citizen are vaguely written into our oath of citizenship. While the first two-thirds of it comprise phony reverence to the Queen, the deliverables are laid out in the last 16 words: “I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.” The laws are self-explanatory. The duties are included in the 68-page study guide provided to would-be citizens by the government, which range from helping others in one’s community to protecting one’s natural, cultural, and architectural heritage – and enjoying it, too.
The Oath is an elegant vow to individual Canadians with no guarantee of reciprocation. After all, the vast majority of Canadians are natural-born, and thus never had to affirm their responsibilities; while my parents vowed to uphold their duties in the 1970s and ’80s, I never had to. However, there exists no such contractual agreement between the Crown and resettled refugees – a kind of guide that would go a long way toward closing the gratitude gap. What do refugees believe they owe to host countries? If there was an Oath of Refugeehood, how would it read?
Back at that café in 2019, I asked Jamal what he thought. Given his right-leaning politics, he didn’t find the question alarming at all.
“Number one: be a good human,” he said, after careful consideration. “In my worst times, there were people willing to sacrifice from their budget to bring a Syrian family to Canada. I have to be a good human back to them.”
The second, he said, was to be a good Canadian, even if you aren’t one already. “What’s a good Canadian?” I asked.
“‘Good Canadian’ means I work, raise my kids on Canadian values, and I teach them this is a nice and peaceful place.” As for “good human,” Jamal more or less described it as having gratitude.
“Are these two things easy to give back?” I asked.
“The first one, yes, but only if you feel it right away,” he said. From the moment Jamal received the e-mail that his family had been sponsored by a group of Canadians, he felt literally indebted to repay society through his own charity, as best as he could, and for the rest of his life. But, Jamal added, if the burden isn’t immediately understood and embraced by a refugee – something he has seen among refugees he’s met – he or she may never be capable of carrying out this obligation.
The second obligation was trickier, he said. It depended on individual circumstances, both here and back home, on finances, language comprehension, social support and their willingness to adopt Canadian values. “It was easy for me, because I’m not religious, but most of the Syrians are religious, and much of Canadian values are haram to them.”
Jamal’s choice of the word haram – forbidden – was a clear indication he was singling out Muslims. I did not fault him for this; it is perfectly understandable that a Christian person can more readily adapt to values of countries such as Canada, which was colonized by Christians and established on Christian mores. I just didn’t think adapting to our national values should determine one’s right to basic human needs.
As for what was owed to Syrian refugees like him, Jamal had an even taller order. “Rebuilding Syria,” he said without hesitation. Despite his efforts for new citizenship, Jamal still wished to be truly home. Tragically, we both knew this might not happen in his lifetime, and so I asked the question again, but framing it around Syrians who may never return.
Jamal leaned back in his seat and thought about this a while. “Their dreams,” he finally said with a nod. “I was an employee in a Syrian oil field. Ten days on, 10 days off. I just got married and had my first girl. I was happy. I never thought of leaving Syria. The idea never even came into my head, not even as a vacation. My dream was to build a house there. Collect the different figs and olives from the fields. That’s our dream. That’s our life. Very simple life, very simple dreams. But these politicians destroyed it. With one bomb, you lose everything you worked for in life.”
He continued: “I’ll never be as happy as I was there. I used to dream about having one tiny car – nothing fancy, a $2,000 car. Now I have two cars. One is $20,000, and I’m not as happy as I used to be. I can buy almost anything I want here, but I can’t tell my kids what ‘grandpa’ means. Can you teach them that for me? That ‘grandpa’ is not the father’s father – ‘grandpa’ means the family sticks together.”
To some, Jamal may come across as entitled, until you reframe resettlement as reparations. According to Ms. Kling and Mr. Owen, the obligations of each country to displaced people are proportionate to the country’s liability for their displacement. In a moral calculus, that would mean Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan puts us on the hook for more Afghani refugees than Syrian. But how direct does our involvement in destabilizing a country have to be? How many Yemenis is Canada obligated to patriate because our government has permitted the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia? How many Haitians, for a century of backroom interference?
If sanctuary countries become indebted to refugees of another country, then Canada, as one of the world’s top per-capita greenhouse gas polluters, owes more to climate refugees than other categories. The World Bank estimates that between 1.4 million and 2.1 million Central Americans will be displaced over the next generation, largely by drought and floods. Corn and bean yields have already been in sharp decline, forcing Honduras to declare a state of emergency in 2019. Estimates of Latin American climate refugees run as high as 17 million by 2050. They will most likely want to seek refuge in the U.S. and Canada, and our culpability – not just our proximity – compels us to offer the refuge they seek.
Years after befriending Jamal, I’d never told him the truth of how and why we came into each other’s orbit. I never told him about the man on the train. I’d made a mental note to share this with Jamal eventually, but I dreaded telling him because I was worried it would insult him – and I valued our friendship, in part because of his different politics.
I decided to tell him last October, when we met at another café, almost one year to the day of our last meeting. Jamal pulled up in a white GMC truck. His construction company had paid for it after recently promoting him. But other than this, he did not have as much good news to share this time. Although he and Hala had aced their citizenship test, their application was stuck in a doubly backlogged system thanks to the pandemic. He wasn’t confident they’d swear their oath in time before their residency permits expire in February, forcing a needlessly expensive renewal process. (Indeed, eight months later, their citizenship applications remain unapproved.) To make matters worse, Jamal and Hala’s parents are effectively trapped back home, after Canada ended its special Syrian refugee program which offered visitor visas to Syrians. They could enter a new, highly competitive family visa lottery, but Jamal didn’t think it was worth it.
After the updates, I came out with my confession. I told him about how my own contemptible response to the needs of a refugee in Paris left me wanting to make amends through Canadian proxies.
“You mean, you didn’t want to learn Arabic?” he asked.
“No, I did – I just wanted it to benefit someone who needed extra help.”
His expression changed to amusement. “You are too sensitive, Omar,” he said. “I won’t give anyone money. If they are hungry, I will feed them. If they want coffee, I’ll buy them coffee. But it’s wrong to give money.”
Jamal’s bravado couldn’t conceal that he seemed offended to learn that his hiring was effectively reparations for how I’d treated a man who sounded like a hustler to him. “What I wanted in the first year, it wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about work,” he continued. “Instead of hiring me to teach you Arabic, I would feel better if you just came over with your wife or your family to visit and have dinner together. At that time, we really missed having connections. We find it a little bit difficult here.”
I’d met Jamal while trying to be a good human and a good Canadian – the two things that Jamal believed are owed by refugees – but I’d clearly failed in my mission. Clearer still, Jamal neither felt grateful for my intentions nor that gratitude was owed to me. On that, we agreed.
As for what I – what Canadians – owe Jamal and others like him: We may not have the ability to guarantee his dreams, but it seems that, for as long as they’re here, obeying the law, the least we owe refugees is a chance to make new dreams, and some time to realize them. And on that, we also agreed.
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