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Refugee crisis: Mayors lead where Harper fears to tread in helping war victims

Top left: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Bottom left: Toronto Mayor John Tory. Right: Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson

Since the plight of Syrian refugees became front page news last week, with the photo of young Alan Kurdi dead on a beach in Turkey, the story has continued to grow exponentially. Across Canada, it continues to lead news broadcasts, dominates front pages of newspapers, and fills the editorial pages. The social media universe is abuzz. A simple Google search yielded over 10 million results.

I attended the rally held at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday September 6 and was moved by the speakers who told of their personal journeys as refugees as well as the large global context that is creating refugees.

Over 500 people gathered and then marched to the offices of Citizenship and Immigration Canada on Georgia Street next to the Vancouver Public Library.

This humanitarian tragedy is not new and has been playing out on the world stage for several years. The numbers are hard to comprehend. Currently, there are more than 50 million are displaced, both outside and inside the borders of their countries and it is not only Syria. Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Libya and many other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are generating these refugees.

As the storm over why Canada is doing so little to help refugees from Syria grows, Prime Minister Stephen Harper manages to be both stubborn and tone deaf. So far, the prime minister has refused to change Canada’s refugee intake process and committed no additional financial or human resources.

In this vacuum of leadership, Canada’s big city mayors (Mayor John Tory in Toronto, Mayor Naheed Nenshi in Calgary, and Vancouver's Mayor Gregor Robertson) are beginning to make their voices heard, as are the premiers of various provinces. These provincial and municipal politicians are actually listening to the public's desire to help.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday evening, Mayor Gregor Robertson held a Public Forum on the Syrian Refugee crises. An overflowing crowd attended to hear Eyob Naizghi, the Executive Director of MOSAIC, and Chris Friesen, Chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance and Director of Immigrant Settlement at the Immigrant Services Society of BC, talk about what the public can do to help.

I attended this event, as a refugee advocate and a member of the Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration (MWGI).  As the evening progressed, a few points became clear.

This crisis is not only about Syrian refugees, but about all refugees. There are more refugees being produced from various displacements in Africa than from Syria. We need to look at the bigger picture and be careful in not treat one group of refugees as in being in more dire danger than another.

It is possible for the federal government to implement emergency measures and bring more than the 20,000 refugees it has committed to, over three years. The refugees need help now, not three years from now. Processing must be sped up.

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