Two of the bigger Canadian news stories in recent months have found themselves unexpectedly linked, highlighting how the media tends to portray refugees. In the midst of the ruthless wildfire in Fort McMurray, up to 80,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Meanwhile a group of refugees living in Waterloo who arrived in Canada merely five months ago from war torn Syria offered their help to those Albertans who lost their homes. And it’s not just this group but many others across the country are willing to help people impacted by the wildfire. In Saskatoon and Calgary, Syrian refugees, with help from established Syrian-Canadians and many others, are fundraising or donating towards the purchase of hygiene products for evacuees. As far away as New Brunswick, one man donated his entire government allowance for the month–$1376—towards the Red Cross.
[su_quote cite=”Abdel-Karim Shihan; CBC: ‘Syrian Refugees Raise Funds to help Fort McMurray Fire Victims.'” url=”http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/fredericton-syrian-refugee-fort-mcmurray-help-1.3583773″]The community of Canada is our community, so we are ready to do anything.[/su_quote]
Reading these stories is no doubt surprising, shocking and inspiring all at the same time. Refugees who have barely lived in Canada for a year and have few material possessions themselves, demonstrating such generosity towards Canadians who similarly lost their homes, runs against the grain of refugee stereotypes. There are more parallels between Syrian refugees and the Fort McMurray evacuees than meets the eye. They’ve both lost their homes to political stress or environmental upheavals. The refugees covered in the news stories explain how they can relate to losing everything in a moment’s notice. “It’s not easy to lose everything. We can understand them more than anyone in Canada. We were in the same situation.” These stories show that refugees don’t just take from their new country but also give.
[su_quote cite=”Mohammad Balkhash; CBC: ‘Syrian Refugees Raise Funds to help Fort McMurray Fire Victims.'” url=”http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/fredericton-syrian-refugee-fort-mcmurray-help-1.3583773″]It’s a message of peace, that we feel all of their pain. When we see the views of the fires we remember.[/su_quote]
Canada’s History Accepting Muslim Refugees and the Many Benefits
In Canada, successive waves of Muslim refugees have always given something to their new home. For example, in 1974, 8000 Ismaili South Asian Ugandans were brought into Canada as a result of being evicted by Ugandan President Idi Amin on the basis of ethnicity. They were targeted shortly after Uganda’s independence because of their history of association with British colonialism in Uganda. This particular group of refugees included many business people who successfully pursued various business endeavours in Canada. In 1979, many Iranian refugees settled in Canada and, like Ismaili South Asian Ugandans, many Iranians established small to large businesses.
The economic benefits of refugees to a host country are well documented: they help maintain the labor force within the working age bracket 22-40 who buy homes and/or have children. They are also an integral component of tax revenues. This is despite the fact that Canada fails to look at refugee education credentials and consequently diminishes the human capital it could be receiving. For example, an engineer claiming asylum in Canada and then becoming employed as a cashier. However, aside from the economic benefits of refugees, migrant groups establish communities that welcome new migrants and help each other. Perhaps most importantly, they create connections with Canadians that would never have existed before.
Western Media Portrayals of Syrian Refugees
What makes this particular group of Syrian refugees different from past waves of Muslim migrants are the circumstances and perceptions under which they arrived in Canada. The 25,000 migrants who have come to Canada arrived under a new Canadian government eager to demonstrate that they are more welcoming than the previous government, and the greater perception portrayed by the media that a “clash of civilizations”—between the West and Islam—is real. Obscured by the media’s adoption of the flawed “clash of civilizations” narrative is the very real plight of Syrian refugees.
Syrian refugees helping Fort McMurray evacuees is not entirely novel, because refugees in Canada have always contributed in various ways: economically, building communities, welcoming and helping other communities. The surprise with which this particular story of refugees helping evacuees was initially received is indicative of the narrative promoted by the media. According to this narrative, accepting 10,000 refugees—even if they were cleared by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees—before the end of 2015 was hasty, with full settlement/integration difficult, and a threat posed by single male Syrian refugees. Few of these are real challenges, with finding stable homes for families in high rent cities such as Vancouver a notable exception; however, the predominance of these largely imagined challenges reinforces the dominant narrative that refugees are a burden and not a benefit. It also indirectly places responsibility for the refugee crisis on the refugees themselves.
Edward Said, a writer on Western media portrayal of the Middle East and Islam, provides a fuller understanding. He discusses how the Western media oversimplifies complex and historically loaded words, such as Islam, to become concepts whose sole use is to antagonize the West. This stems from Western colonial views on the “Orient” which views regions like the “Middle East” as backwards or stuck in time.[i] Said criticized Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” narrative for being based on journalistic sources predisposed to the Western colonial viewpoint. From this, Said says that Western media is not investigative, as much as it is reinforcing what has been put out by greater authorities. It ignores both the Middle East and Islam’s people, history and diversity. Over time, media portrayal has become less informed and understanding as a result of mass media proliferation and the need to project a single image and feeling.
This story of Syrian refugees contributing to the Fort McMurray wildfire delineates the burden narrative of the Syrian refugee crisis and provides an opening for an alternative mainstream narrative to focus more on how refugees contribute to Canada. I think it is important for people to remember that the media offers certain aspects of stories and hardly ever the entire picture. This particular story is a reminder of that fact. Refugees, the Middle East and Islam have been heavily stigmatized as a result of the media. However, these labels fail to encompass diverse lived realities. Finding alternative and reputable sources of information that are not from mainstream media is an important component of ensuring that everyone has a more complete understanding of the world we live in. It is a step in the right direction, however, for mainstream media like the CBC, to bring attention to one of the ways Syrian refugees are able to contribute to Canada.
By Shupa Barua
* All views expressed in this blog post belong to the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.