Some images sear themselves into your mind. You cannot unthink them. They change how you see the world. A photo of a napalmed Vietnamese girl, now living in Ajax, galvanized support of a shocked generation to end a war.
The Associated Press photograph of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, is another such disturbing image. He and his family, along with at least 10 more Syrian refugees, tried to escape by flimsy boat in search of safety and security as they fled the entrenched, violent war which has decimated their country for the last four years.
Sadly, young Alan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan, are only the latest victims. More than 2,500 refugees and migrants have died or disappeared this year alone while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from war-ravaged countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Many of their names are known only to their families and to God alone.
Alan’s death has focused our attention on the ongoing plight of Syrian refugees and the need for concerted action, internationally and in Canada, to better address this crisis. Considerable attention has been given to the challenges faced by European nations in dealing with the largest wave of migration since the Second World War. This is not their problem alone. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye, hoping other countries will deal with the fallout. It is a moral as well as political issue. Our policies enact our values. Canada must take a greater leadership role in dealing with this massive migration so that fewer children and their families face the same tragic fate as Alan Kurdi. We Anglicans must do our part.* Canadians have rallied together in the past to respond to a global humanitarian crisis. We must do so again if we hope to stem the tide of suffering so many families are experiencing today.
In 1979, while serving the parish of Georgina, my wife and I joined four other couples in the parish to sponsor a refugee family from Vietnam who had fled their homeland along with millions of others because of ongoing conflict. Our small town group was just one of thousands across the country who had organized to make use of provisions within Canadian law that allowed private citizens, faith groups, and others to sponsor refugees seeking to come to Canada. While the Canadian government had initially committed to allowing 8,000 from Southeast Asia, through the efforts of these private sponsor groups, 60,000 refugees arrived between 1979 and 1980. In coming together and saying that we can do better as a country to respond to the needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable, Canadians were galvanized to do everything they could to help stem the loss of life we were witnessing in another part of the world.
The Syrian refugee crisis calls for just such a response from Canadians now. Anglicans have a role. Both the Five Marks of Mission and the vows we make in Baptism require our faithful action.
We must not stand idly by as bodies wash ashore in the Mediterranean, as families are torn apart by conflict, and as our fellow humans suffer. We need to pray and then act for the safety and security we all deserve.
Yes, ending the war is necessary, but in the meantime millions are displaced and thousands are dying. The Government of Canada has committed to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017, relying on private sponsorships for many of these. We must advocate to accelerate this timeline. Remove barriers which hinder the approval process. Develop a special process for Syrian refugee applicants: put more resources – including visa officers – into overseas offices dealing with high volumes of Syrian applicants, and remove onerous proof of refugee status documentation for community sponsorships.* I hope that all political parties, during this election, will present Canadians with concrete plans that they would implement to deal with this crisis.
The Canadian public must also step up and reaffirm our commitment to offer assistance to those suffering in this conflict. Remember that it was only after private citizens organized and advocated for a more compassionate response that the government’s approach to the Southeast Asian refugee crisis of the 1970s and 1980s shifted. As Anglicans, we can come together with fellow parishioners and our neighbours to create networks which offer direct support to Syrian refugees through private sponsorship. We need to advocate with our communities and with our government for action and compassion, both federally and internationally, in the face of a complex, dynamic situation. And we need to commit to welcome those who will begin to build new lives in communities across the country, far from the homeland and the lives they have known. This was how Canada was built.
This is at the heart of our faith story: Abraham and Sarah, Passover and the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the pilgrimage to citizenship in the new Kingdom of God.
In 1939, Canadian authorities refused permission to land to a ship carrying 937 Jews. A third of them subsequently died in the Holocaust. As a nation, that decision should weigh heavily on our conscience and continue to inform our commitment to be a more compassionate, welcoming place for those who seek safety from the very real threats they face in their homelands.
There is still time for action by Canadians. I ask people in the Diocese to sponsor a family, if possible, or to contribute to a group that can; to advocate for better policies; to welcome the stranger in our midst; to pray for justice and peace. Look at the ways that we can help.* Cut out the picture of the boy face down on the beach. Post it on your fridge. Look and ask yourself if our refugee response is adequate. If you answer “yes,” look at the photo again.