Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Syrian refugees' obstacles decried

Just one family eligible for local settlement

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Ezzat Ibrahim says there are local people ready to help refugees, but the rules might keep them out.

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Ezzat Ibrahim says there are local people ready to help refugees, but the rules might keep them out. Photo Store

Winnipeg could welcome 50 Syrian refugees but so far only one family looks ready to meet the requirements.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced earlier that Canada would accept 1,300 of the million-plus refugees forced to flee Syria and languishing in camps in neighbouring countries. The government committed to accepting 200 government-assisted refugees and 1,100 privately sponsored refugees from Syria -- with 50 allocated for Winnipeg.

Meeting the requirement to fill Winnipeg's allocation of 50 will be difficult, said volunteer Ezzat Ibrahim, a retired University of Manitoba scientist who came to Winnipeg from Egypt in 1965.

The sponsorship agreement holder, the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council overseeing private sponsorships of Syrian refugees, says only family members who meet financial requirements can sponsor the Syrian refugees. The federal government says the refugees must be in Jordan and Lebanon.

"So far we have only one family eligible for that," the disheartened Ibrahim said.

'If you want to help, and help with good intentions, then don't make it difficult'

-- Ezzat Ibrahim, retired University of Manitoba scientist who came to Winnipeg from Egypt in 1965

"If they said 'Here's a list of refugees' or if they'd make a list of refugees to give to churches and sponsors to pick up whatever you can handle," then local Syrians could help people escape overcrowded refugee camps and settle in Winnipeg, he said.

More than 100,000 civilians in Syria have died and hundreds of thousands have fled since the Syrian civil war began.

Ibrahim said he often hears from refugees about food shortages, a lack of medical attention and their getting blamed for rising food and shelter prices in overcrowded countries where they've taken refuge and worn out their welcome.

"They're treated badly because they are refugees in a land that doesn't want them," said Ibrahim.

They can't go home and for now have no place else to go, he said.

"As a refugee, you stay in the camp and suffer forever," said Ibrahim, who remembers sponsoring a family of Vietnamese boat people in the mid-1970s.

"There was no problem -- they came within three or four weeks and we paid for their accommodation" and living costs, he said.

"They needed help. The churches and everybody tried to help," said Ibrahim. "If you want to help, and help with good intentions, then don't make it difficult."

Quonhai Tonthat, the settlement and sponsorship co-ordinator for the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, said he understood the Syrian community in Manitoba was concerned about sponsoring refugees from Syria who might be supporters of its reviled President Assad. Tonthat said they felt that sponsoring relatives was the safest way to ensure Syrian refugees coming here wouldn’t be pro-Assad.

Canada's response to the Syrian crisis is a far cry from humanitarian missions of the past, said Tonthat.

During the conflict in Kosovo, Canada rescued tens of thousands of Kosovars and brought them here, he said.

"They took them all right away and processed them later," said Tonthat. The same thing happened when Canada welcomed 70,000 Vietnamese boat people, said Tonthat, who was one of them.

"Why for Kosovo and Vietnamese boat people? Why don't we do the same for Syrians? Their situation is worse and they're asking the community" to take responsibility, Tonthat said.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada says Canada has been a world leader in providing affected Syrians with humanitarian aid, committing to more than $630 million, a spokeswoman's statement said.

"We have begun to resettle the most vulnerable and are actively working with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) so we can fulfil our existing commitments and then look at doing even more," she said. They're expediting the processing of applications they've already received, but "hundreds" of private sponsorship opportunities remain.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2014 A10

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 1:40 PM CDT: Corrects that Ezzat Ibrahim came from Egypt

4:46 PM: Corrects responsibilities of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

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