June 20 is World Refugee Day, a day that must be regarded as more than a one day affair; it’s a month-long celebration, reflection and call to action organized by over 10 community partners, at various locations, bringing attention to refugee advocacy work that happens all year long.
Waterloo Region’s theme this year is “becoming neighbours,” reflecting the local impacts of a global “new normal.” One where 65 million people are displaced by war, violence and persecution across the globe, representing the largest number of displaced persons since World War II. Apart from the now seven-year-old war in Syria, protracted conflicts continue in Somalia and Afghanistan, and statelessness threatens protection for Palestinians and Rohingya peoples. And these are only the top headlines.
Headed by the Community Coalition for Refugee and Immigrant Concerns (CCORIC), World Refugee Day WR is comprised of a series of events in collaboration with local refugee serving agencies. From a month long exhibit at THEMUSEUM, to an ice cream party with Welcome Home KW, to the annual “Walk with Refugees for a Stronger Canada” on June 23 starting at Kitchener City Hall.
As conflicts rage on, and public interest wanes, this may be the most important year to come out and show solidarity.
Oceans away from the massacre in Gaza, or the Rohingya genocide in Burma, Canada has had the luxury of offering proportionally small resettlement gestures, as geographically closer nations bear the brunt of humanitarian response. Today, Lebanon hosts over one million Syrian and Palestinian refugees, Turkey’s politics have become polarized, exacerbated by over three million asylum seekers, and over half a million displaced peoples live in refugee camps in Kenya such as Dadaab, with some of the slowest resettlement processing times in the world.
Compare and contrast these numbers to Canada’s commitment to resettle 27,000 refugees in 2018. 27,000 is less than one per cent of our population, and a decrease from the response in 2016, although the global need has not lessened.
It’s important to remember, that behind each of these amorphous numbers, is a person, just like you and me. They are not the problem. They are not the enemy. It’s the arms trade, paired with violent extremism, power politics and desperation. This is what we should be limiting the flow of, not the people caught in the middle.
As Canadians, living in a peaceful nation, with passports that open doors for us the world over, it may seem difficult to empathize with the horrific reality of potentially never being able to return home. But refugees who have experienced displacement, violence and denial of basic human rights are among us. They are rebuilding their lives in Waterloo Region – somewhere around 2,000 of them since 2015 are becoming our neighbours. By participating in World Refugee Day events, you are invited to appreciate not only the struggle, but the resilience, resourcefulness and will to succeed that our newest neighbours arrive with.
Last year’s Walk With Refugees for a Stronger Canada garnered some heckling. “Go back to your country,” was one slur we got on King Street. What this onlooker may not have considered, is that when refugees succeed in our communities, we all succeed, because when the systems that support refugees improve (like housing or healthcare) all low income people benefit, many who have experienced their own traumas.
This World Refugee Day, CCORIC encourages you to look at newcomers in our community not through a label of past struggle, but as neighbours. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how we might share a bit more of our privilege and security with those who’ve been pushed from home. We have little control over global political situations which produce refugees, but we have the ability to vote for inclusive governments and extend a warm welcome here, both personally and politically. By doing so, we make this little corner of the world, which we can control, a whole lot safer and more livable for everyone, including our newest neighbours. That’s the kind of neighbourhood I want to be a part of.
For a full list of World Refugee Day WR events, visit worldrefugeedaywr.com.
Marika Galadza is a member of CCORIC and works at a refugee resettlement agency in Kitchener.