By Martha Wiebe on March 23, 2017
Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached a fever pitch south of the border over the past year. Unfortunately that sentiment has also resonated with some Canadians. During the last federal election, the Conservatives fanned anti-immigrant feelings by politicizing the wearing of the niqab. This narrative suggests that refugees are a drain on society, that they take jobs from Canadians and present a security risk. None of these arguments hold up to facts.
Canada needs immigrants. Demographers note that to sustain our economy with its aging population, we need new people to join our workforce. There is also no evidence that they present a particular security risk. Most attacks have been perpetrated by people who grew up in Canada. This was evident again in the recent murderous assault on Muslims at prayer in Quebec City.
For nearly 40 years, Ottawa Mennonite Church has sponsored refugees from around the world. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive. They have not only contributed to the life of our congregation but also to our community and our country.
Our most recent experience was welcoming an extended Syrian family of nine, the last three of whom arrived in early November 2016. After leaving war-torn Syria and spending time in Lebanon waiting for resettlement, they are adjusting to life in Canada. Not surprisingly, the children have learned English more quickly than the adults. When necessary, they serve as translators for their parents and grandparents. But the adults are also attending daily English classes.
Our congregation has been enriched enormously by hundreds of refugees.
Even before the first year of sponsorship came to an end, several members of this family found part-time jobs. Elias dreams of becoming an engineer. But in the meantime, he is advancing rapidly in language courses at Carleton University while holding down several part-time jobs. After arriving in Ottawa, George quickly got a job at a barber shop owned by a Lebanese man. This family has come through difficult and traumatic experiences. They have shown remarkable resilience and are motivated to adjust to Canada and make a life here. They are not a drain on our society but rather have quickly become contributors.
Fifteen years ago, our church sponsored a Somali woman who had been living in Yemen with five young children. She escaped an abusive domestic situation and the war raging in her country. Her young daughter Faduma was about five years old at the time. Faduma recently received the Spirit of the Capital Youth Award and was also chosen by her peers to be the valedictorian at her high school graduation. She is a young Canadian of whom we can be very proud.
Jamila is an Afghani woman who came to Ottawa with several children years ago. Our congregation had the privilege of sponsoring her and her family. When she realized she would not be able to teach in Canada, Jamila started catering for small groups. I arranged for her to provide the food for events that I organized. Through word of mouth, she found more opportunities to cater and soon started her first fulltime job. She later commented to me how pleased she was to be working and to be paying taxes. Since that time she has had regular employment, and I think she actually works too hard!
There are many other examples I could point to of the richness that refugees bring to our communities. Rather than fearing them, we need to embrace and celebrate newcomers who make up the wonderful cultural mosaic that is Canada. At a time in our society when open expressions of division, hatred, and violence are all too evident, churches must be a voice of love, inclusion, justice, and peace. The Christian imperative is to welcome the stranger. We cannot remain on the sidelines. As one of the placards at a recent demonstration stated succinctly, Silence is Violence.
Both as churches and as individuals, we need to bridge the divide by reaching out to our brothers and sisters from other faiths and other cultures. Through refugee sponsorship and social activism, churches must stand in solidarity with those discriminated against and marginalized. Individually, we are challenged to confront Islamophobia and racism wherever we encounter it and to change the public narrative about refugees.
Martha Wiebe is a member of Ottawa Mennonite Church as well as CPJ’s Board of Directors.
Photo: Jamila and her family at their citizenship ceremony.