Saturday, January 9, 2016

I am not a Syrian refugee from Pakistan

In four months I have learnt that Canadians love to talk about the weather. Lamenting about the weather being too cold, or not cold enough is the perfect icebreaker and helps new comers identify with the locals. I recently got into a such a conversation with my fellow streetcar passenger.

As I discussed the cold winds with my random stranger of the day, I proudly announced that it was my first Canadian winter. This revelation led to the obvious question, ‘where are you from?’ ‘I am from Pakistan’, I replied. Visibly excited, the young man asked his next question, ‘so…are you like… a Syrian refugee?’  Once my insides had laughed enough, I realized how much that young man wanted me to be a refugee so he could utter one sentence to me with pride, ‘Welcome to Canada'.

It is true that Canada does not rank very well as a country that offers refuge to a larger number of people, when it certainly can. But I am sure it would rank very well in terms of the treatment of refugees and their reintegration into the society. As the news of the pepper spray attack on a group of refugees in Vancouver spreads, I can, as a newcomer to this country, confidently say that the incident does not represent the sentiments of the public at large.

I am a big skeptic when it comes to what is reflected in the media. I have been a storywriter myself, carefully crafting scenarios and recreating reality on camera to appeal to popular perceptions. So my opinion is not based on the social media frenzy created by the video of Canada’s (gorgeous) Prime Minister receiving the first lot of refugees at the airport. Rather, I am judging the situation by the willingness of the common people towards this issue. A substantial number of Syrian refugees meant to come to Canada have been privately sponsored by families and communities. There are places where locals are even taking Arabic lessons so they could communicate with their refugee families upon their arrival.  Toronto airport had to announce to the public to not head to the airport to welcome the first plane carrying refugees so as to not overwhelm them.
The elaborate systems being put up by the Government to resettle the newcomers are also a clear reflection of the positive intent of this country. The refugees are being given Permanent Resident status upon arrival and are being offered a genuine chance to start over. There is avid critique about this situation, because there is much room for improvement and expansion. But that should not stop us from appreciating what is intrinsically positive.

As a willing immigrant with no language or culture barrier, I am struggling financially and emotionally. I can’t even begin to imagine how much harder it must be for the refugees after their arduous journeys to escape war. But I can definitely say that we have arrived in a country with a relatively good heart. A pepper spray won’t change that.