The haunting image of a dead Syrian boy has spurred the world to action, Powell River included.
Three-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned, along with his mother and brother, earlier this month in a failed attempt to reach Greece. The image of Kurdi’s body became an instant symbol of what some saw as the international community’s failure to help the millions of Syrians fleeing their country’s ongoing civil war.
News that Kurdi’s family had tried and failed to enter Canada as refugees has also raised questions regarding Canada’s refugee policies.
“There have been people dying in the Mediterranean for years now,” said Powell River resident Claudia Medina, who organized a local rally in support of Syrian refugees last Friday. “Ever since the tragedy of Alan Kurdi there’s been even more interest and people asking about it.”
Medina, who is interested in sponsoring a refugee family, quickly saw just how the process is fraught with difficulties.
“Most people who are interested in sponsoring often don’t have the understanding of how the process works,” said Medina, citing changes to Canada’s refugee policy that require applicants have documentation from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Currently, over four million Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR and just over 40 per cent are children. According to the agency, almost half of the Syrian population has been displaced by the civil war that began in 2011.
According to Medina, Canada’s current policy doesn’t fit our history of helping refugees, such as those brought to the country following the end of the Vietnam War in 1979.
“Those people became great citizens and contributed to the whole landscape of Canada,” she said. “Our country would be a lot less without them.”
Nearly 100 Powell River citizens attended the rally, which took place on Alberni Street near Marine Avenue, waving signs with slogans such as “refugees welcome” and “let them in!”
According to Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, since the Vietnamese were brought to Canada there have been “extremely discouraging” changes to refugee policy, such as restrictions on who can be sponsored.
“The requirement for UNHCR documentation is particularly onerous,” said Dench. “The UN is overwhelmed; there are just too many Syrian refugees to be processed and not enough people to process them.”
Currently, there are three ways to sponsor Syrian refugees into Canada. Either community sponsors or sponsorship agreement holders can submit applications, providing eligibility requirements such as being from an approved organization with the ability to provide financial and emotional support for refugees.
In addition, five Canadian citizens can also come together to sponsor a refugee in a group application. Due to documentation requirements, about 80 to 90 per cent of these applications are being rejected, said Dench.
Following the cross-Canada rallies, the federal government announced in a press release Saturday, September 19, that they would be changing the policy, speeding up refugee sponsorship by at least 15 months and committing to resettling 10,000 Syrians by September of next year.
According to the release from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, staff in Canada as well as at embassies abroad will be increased in order to sponsor applications more rapidly.
“We need to respond to the crisis for our own humanity,” said Ron Berezan, who attended the Powell River rally in representation of Saint David and Saint Paul’s Anglican Church. “It’s an issue of vital importance, not just for the refugees, but for us here in Powell River.
Berezan announced at the rally that the Powell River church will be submitting an application to sponsor Syrian refugees into the community.
“In the past, Powell River did sponsor refugees and we need to step up again,” he said.
According to Berezan, the Anglican Church will be submitting the application as a sponsorship agreement holder with the Anglican Synod of the Diocese of New Westminster.
Powell River’s Evangel Pentecostal Church is also in the process of sponsoring refugees. According to Wendy Perkonig, a volunteer for the Evangel Pentecostal’s missions committee, refugee sponsors are sorely needed.
“All we can do is hope that the process is faster rather than slower,” said Perkonig, “and we can provide some much-needed help.”
Based on conversations with citizens, and after researching refugee sponsorship himself, City of Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa said he is organizing a meeting of community leaders to brainstorm on the issue.
“If we all get together, we can hopefully help more people,” said Formosa, who hopes Powell River can help as many as five Syrian families as a community initiative.
Formosa said he is optimistic about the community initiative and the meeting, scheduled for early October, is a prelude to public discussions in city council.
“I am hoping we can help some families be safe,” said Formosa, “and live with us in our beautiful city by the sea.”