26,000 arrive annually without fanfare or an official welcome
Dec. 18, 2015
MARKHAM, Ont. — Neil Jones is 6’1″ and has a bad back, one that requires stretching, especially after he has been standing around in a Toronto airport terminal for several hours, waiting. Others were waiting, too, on Dec. 10, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a great mob of reporters eager for a glimpse of the Syrian refugees on the first official government flight to arrive in Canada.
Jones, with his back, was doing some contortions when a reporter asked if he was there for the refugees.
“There were tons of reporters,” says Joy Vaz, Jones’s wife. “This guy comes up to Neil and says, ‘Are you waiting for the refugees?’ Neil says, ‘Yes,’ but then he says, ‘We’re waiting for Africans, not Syrians.’
“The reporter just walked away. He was not interested. Isn’t that interesting?”
Canadians are bending over backwards to donate money, clothes, furniture, time, apartments and more to ensure the 25,000 Syrian refugees headed this way in the coming months understand that we — as a nation — care. And it is a great thing, all this caring about Syrians. It shows the very best of what Canada can be.
But there are refugees from places other than Syria — 26,000 or so that arrive annually, without fanfare or an official welcome from the prime minister. Just as that first planeload of Syrians was beginning their Canadian lives, a brother and sister, from Ivory Coast, were walking out into Terminal 1, scanning the crowd for a tall man with a back issue.
Fiacre Kouablan is 27 years old. Diana, his sister, is 23. They have spent much of the past five years with their parents in a refugee camp in Ghana. There are about 4 million refugees in similar camps around Africa. The Dadaab camps in northern Kenya, for example, are home to be about 500,000 Somalis, some of whom have lived there for 25 years.
But nobody talks about them.
Joy Vaz has a theory as to why not. She and her husband and a group from her Catholic church in Markham are in charge of resettling the Kouablans. (The siblings are Catholic; their first language is French.)
“Africans are poorer and less-educated, generally,” Vaz says. “And they are non-white and compared to the Syrians — the Syrians are white, educated and middle-class. Besides, the Africans aren’t pounding on Germany’s door.”
‘Arriving in Canada was like a honeymoon’
By foot, by leaky boat and by the sheer force of their national tragedy, the Syrians pounded their way across Europe. Then came that photograph of poor little Alan Kurdi, lying dead on a beach. Suddenly a peripheral issue for most Canadians catalyzed an election that produced a Liberal majority and, on Dec. 10 at Pearson International, a winning photo-op for the new prime minister.
“With Alan Kurdi people saw a child — recognized that child was like their child — and it activated empathy,” says Michaela Hynie, with the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. “One reason that we are seeing this sudden outpouring for the Syrians is that people are experiencing distress — but they can actually do something about it.”
Humans are “hard-wired for empathy,” the professor adds. We want to do good because it makes us feel good. Helping the Syrians is doing good. But bad things happen all over — in Burundi, Darfur, Congo, Ivory Coast, to name a few. So what should we be doing about the things that we don’t see, at least not in the way we saw Alan Kurdi?
Spend time listening to talk radio and what you will hear from Joe Public about refugees are two competing narratives. One is: they are an added drag on already overburdened social services; we have enough problems already, why create more? And the other: investing in refugees (and immigrants) is an investment in Canada’s future.
Between 1979 and 1981 Canada welcomed 60,000 “boat people” from Southeast Asia. Morton Beiser, an academic and renowned immigration expert, tracked 1300 of them over the next decade and found the average Canadian was more likely to rely on social services than the average refugee.
The Kouablans are from Grand-Bassam, a coastal town in Ivory Coast. Their father, Blan, was a high school biology teacher. Their mother, Rosalie, primarily a homemaker. Fiacre was studying computer science at university and Diana was finishing high school when their lives fell apart. Rosalie belonged to a women’s group. The group campaigned for President Laurent Gbagbo’s party during the 2010 elections. Gbagbo lost the election, but refused to give up power.
Violence ensued, and in a swirl of extra-judicial killings and gang rapes that would claim 3,000 lives, Rosalie was targeted for her political activities.
“One morning they wrote ‘You will die in hell’ across the front gates of our home,” Fiacre says. Another time a crowd of men with machetes appeared, demanding the family leave. The Kouablans moved. But the threats followed. Rosalie received an anonymous phone call. The voice said they were coming for her.
“We left for Ghana on February 23rd, 2011,” says Fiacre. “I shared a small suitcase with Diana. We thought we would be gone a month.”
Fiacre, an aspiring engineer, worked as a mason’s assistant to supplement the family’s UN camp rations. He made sure he was always home before dark. Diana stayed close to their parents.
“There were lots of murders in this area,” Fiacre says.
Their big break came when Dr. Martin Mark, the director of the Toronto Catholic Archdiocese’s Office for Refugees, visited the camp. He met Diana and Fiacre. Two years later, the siblings were on a flight to Canada.
“I was sad because I had to leave my family, and I started to remember all the hard things I had been through,” Fiacre says. “But then I thought, ‘I am going to Canada to build my life and maybe help my parents to come here, to have a better life’ — and I was comforted by this.
“Arriving in Canada was like a honeymoon. I am so happy here.”
Fiacre wants to return to school, eventually, to study computers. Meantime, his sponsors have found him a job at a grocery store. Diana hopes to be hired there in the new year. Her dream is to be a nurse.
The siblings had been in Canada for six days when we met at Vaz’s spacious suburban home. Every morning her African guests rush to the windows, eager to see snow. (There hasn’t been any yet.) Diana’s suitcase is filled with traditional African clothes, all reds and yellows and royal blues.
“These clothes will be better for summer, I think,” her brother says, chuckling. Tucked amid their belongings is some cassava grain, bound in tinfoil and packing tape: a taste of home.
Fiacre sleeps on a pullout couch in a games room that would be the envy of most Canadian teenagers. There is a pool table, a Pink Floyd poster on one wall and a snarling image of Muhammad Ali on another. The caption beneath the champ reads: “Impossible is Nothing.”
And nothing is impossible, not in looking at Fiacre and Diana and knowing what they have been through to get to where they are. Canada wasn’t their Plan A. It wasn’t the plan at all. Now here they were, at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in December, waiting for the snow, practicing their English by reading from a children’s book.
“This is Canada’s flag,” Fiacre read, as Diana followed along, repeating the words. “It’s red and white.”