Mohammed Alsaleh’s story has parallels with that of thousands of other Syrians, who have crossed the Mediterranean and currently are waiting to discover whether they will be offered refuge in another country.
But unlike them, Alsaleh is not in an overcrowded camp in Greece, or Italy or Spain. He’s thousands of kilometres away in British Columbia, Canada.
As European Union governments like Italy put pressure on the EU to tackle the refugee crisis nearer to its source, Canada offers an example of a country already doing this, using embassies in Beirut and Lebanon to adjudicate and process asylum cases.
According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Ottawa, in 2016, Canada resettled 33,266 refugees from third countries and a further 11,042 in 2017.
In contrast, Italy, struggling under the burden of those already across its borders resettled 832 in 2016 and 139 a year later, according to UNHCR’s office in Rome, Italy.
Alsaleh’s journey across the Atlantic began in 2014 on the streets of Homs with a mobile phone video filmed during a protest. He was seen recording by policemen who fell upon him, accusing him of being a terrorist.
“The police began hitting me on my face and with every blow, I felt a shock going through my body. I could see my white shirt turning red. I tried to tell the police I was a medical student, not a terrorist, but I could hardly speak because they are choking me."
"One policeman tried to take my phone and I resisted, so he took out his gun and pointed it at my head.”
Over the next two years, Mohamed says he endured torture in cockroach-infested jail cells and was denied medical treatment. “Suicide was a very tempting option for me,” he recalls.
“’I was a 4th-year medical student in Syria and I went from that to a hopeless refugee in Lebanon’ recalls Mohammed. ‘I waited tables, washed cars and did anything to survive. In a desperate attempt to get help, I visited the UNHCR centre in Beirut, registered my information and shared my story of surviving the violence in Syria.’”
It was the UNHCR who shared Alsaleh’s details with potential host countries and Canada responded.
“’I didn’t choose to come to Canada. Canada chose me and I’m so glad it did,’ says Mohammed, who now holds a full-time job in the nonprofit sector. ‘Canada is the best nation on earth. It’s a nation of diversity, acceptance, and peace.
Despite some hateful comments online, hate emails and sometimes hate phone calls, I feel at home in Canada. Whenever I travel and get asked where I am from; without even thinking my answer is Canada.’” Last month he became a Canadian citizen.
Like Alsaleh, Arman Petrosian had his home and life stolen by Syria’s civil war. He was 14 at the time.
“I saw someone get killed from my balcony by a sniper,” he recounts as he describes how his family lost their battle to stay. “I remember as the war progressed I struggled to finish 8th grade. Things like electricity became a luxury. I had to do my homework by candlelight.”
In 2014, Arman and his parents went to Beirut, Lebanon to meet his brother who had gone on ahead. At the end of September, Arman and his parents resettled in Toronto, Canada as privately sponsored refugees by a church in Toronto, who are sponsoring them for one year.
The church sponsor is covering Arman and his parents’ rent, food, and clothes. “The sponsor gives you an amount of money so you can use it for your needs,” says Arman.
“But the plane tickets we had to pay for, and we’re doing it via a monthly plan. The sponsor is giving us four years to pay a small amount each month.”
After one year, Arman and his family have to cover all their expenses on their own.
Canada’s resettlement programme is split into three streams: government-assisted refugees, privately sponsored refugees, and blended visa refugees.
Pierre Houssney, the Executive Director of Horizons International, a Christian NGO in Beirut, Lebanon knows first-hand the benefits of privately sponsored Syrian refugees who have immigrated from Beirut to Canada.
“One good thing about the Canadian system is that they give churches a fast track, making it super easy for them to sponsor refugees."
There was one Syrian family, where a church in Canada began financially providing for the sick father’s medical needs by working with us to get him the care he needed, from Lebanon, which was incredible.
Once the family arrived in Canada, the church continued to financially provide for the family’s needs, like renting an apartment for the family, the church got furniture donations, took them shopping for their needs, helped them fill out job applications, helping them with cultural issues, and people from the church were on call to help them 24/7.
Even the church council was involved in financially helping with a plan to care for this family,” Houssney remembers.
For Houssney, this is a contrast to the European system.
However, those wanting to resettle in Canada, are screened abroad and have to undergo security and medical checks prior to being granted a visa to enter Canada. If they pass these steps, they are given permanent resident status.
Last year, the UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi praised Canada for being a “champion” with its refugee resettlement system. Grandi met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who gives credit to Canada’s successful resettlement program to the Canadian people.
Canada wants to increase its number of permanent residents, and they are doing it. Trudeau’s government will welcome 310,000 new permanent residents in 2018 and plans for 330,000 in 2019 and 340,000 in 2020.
The country’s geographic position, isolated from war zones and areas of extreme poverty, has allowed it to choose its path to doing so.
While the EU’s policies and each country in the EU has a different approach to resettling refugees, compared to Canada’s resettlement approach, it can’t be overlooked that Canada is a model in resettling refugees.
Houssney went onto say, “I think one reason Europe has been tightening things up is that they’re seeing the results of their approach, which is grouping refugees together in large numbers, which causes cesspools of radicalism, and it’s not helping the integration of refugees into Italian culture or European culture.
They are forming ghettos within European countries. With the newfound freedom that refugees have, they are using that freedom to become more fanatic and more extremist Muslims than they were before.
There have been problems caused by the temporary camps that they have been in, with abuse and poor security.”
He went on to say, “The Canadians are better able to integrate the refugees and it's wonderful how churches have the opportunity to sponsor refugee families because there is a community structure that is Canadian."
It’s not importing refugees in their own refugee communities where they will naturally cling to each other, but with church sponsorships, refugees have to cling to Canadian society. It’s better this way and it cuts down on the troublemakers that Europe is experiencing.”