Social Policy

Warm welcome: Why the North is a perfect home for Syrian refugees

Why would someone from such a warm place choose to live in Canada?

This is the question that tends to follow once I tell people I was born in Costa Rica, despite living more than half my life in the Yukon.

The same question may one day be asked to one of the Syrian refugees coming to the North. Of course, their answer is likely easier to understand than mine.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that over four million people are fleeing the Middle East over a messy civil war in Syria. The conflict involves state troops, rebel forces, and terrorist groups fighting against one another for control.

Citizens in the Yukon and Northwest Territories are currently finalizing work to privately sponsor Syrian families. These families will be among the 25,000 refugees the Liberal government has committed to welcoming to Canada by February of next year.

But why would you want to come all the way up here?

When someone asks this question, I can’t help but feel perplexed, especially when I look at the mountains of Whitehorse behind them.

Even on the small scale, I can remember new friends so willingly driving my family to see the scenery around Whitehorse. The people of the North want their newcomers to love it as much as they do.

The beauty of living “up here” is much more than its scenery, though. Efforts being undertaken by the many groups preparing to welcome Syrian families to the North prove that.

Adam Bathe and Hilary Turko are based out of Fort Smith, NWT. They have been closely following the refugee crisis and determining how to best help. In the 1980s, Turko’s family sponsored a family to come to Canada. Building on that positive experience, Bathe said the couple decided to reach out to other friends to work on supporting someone to come North.

“We don’t see it as far North,” he spoke about Fort Smith. “We love our life here and feel that our community can provide the support needed for a refugee.”

Whitehorse, Yukon resident Raquel De Queiroz shared a similar sentiment. After seeing the photograph of three-year old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on Turkish shores – his family was fleeing Syria for Canada – De Queiroz formed the group Yukon Cares. She decided to bring a family to the Yukon because she said it is where she can help the refugees best.

“This is the community where I live, and it’s a beautiful community. It’s full of generous people, very welcoming, and they would love to make them feel at home.”

Yukon Cares will be supporting a family of 10, and is also helping the Whitehorse Riverdale Baptist Church to bring another family to the territory. De Queiroz estimates around 150 people are “actively paying attention” to the work they are doing, and many from the Whitehorse community at large are sending donations.

The continuous updates on the Yukon Cares and Yellowknifers Supporting Syrian Refugees (YSSR) Facebook groups show that Northerners are community builders. Even on the small scale, I can remember new friends so willingly driving my family to see the scenery around Whitehorse. The people of the North want their newcomers to love it as much as they do.

“As our event last weekend demonstrated, the community is able to pull together when there is a need and connect amongst many different cultures,” Lindsay Armer said on behalf of YSSR.

The event was a Dec. 5 fundraising dinner in Yellowknife that raised around $19,500 to support Syrian refugees in need.

While not a sponsorship group, Armer said YSSR would actively work with families or groups finalizing private sponsorship efforts.

Back in Whitehorse, Muhammad Javed talked about the pride he feels in the way Yukoners have rallied around the issue.

“Not only do we have the services, but we also have individuals willing to deliver those services in a much more personalized way.”

“I looked at all those people,” the local Muslim leader said of a Yukon Cares meeting, “and I was so moved by the excitement they had, and all the questions they had about the culture, about the food, about the ‘do’s and don’ts.’”

Javed added that the Muslim community is “very excited” and committed to making the Syrian refugees “feel at home.”

Much like in the Yukon, Nazin Awan, a YSSR committee member, said the Muslim community and its “fully operational” Islamic centre “will be crucial to providing moral and cultural support and integration” to those coming to Yellowknife and beyond in the Northwest Territories.

“There is a surprising amount of diversity in some of the smaller Northern communities,” Bathe said. “While larger communities have services such as English classes, smaller communities provide a deeper feeling of community and belonging.”

De Queiroz highlighted this as an advantage. She said in bigger centres it could be easier “to become just a number.”

“Not only do we have the services, but we also have individuals willing to deliver those services in a much more personalized way.”

Already, she has had several citizens offer English lessons and counselling services.

Whether refugees are in Toronto or Whitehorse, both Javed and De Queiroz emphasized any place in the country is ultimately better than where they are now.

As for the weather:

“It’s Canada,” De Queiroz admitted. “No matter where you go, it will be winter. I’m Brazilian myself and I always say, if I adapted to the weather here, anybody else can.”◉


Photo credit: istockphoto/Pi-Lens

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