Canada should have said, ‘never again’
Seeing the plight of the Syrian refugees and our government’s reaction — namely, non-action — to it reminded me of 1956, when my family was in a similar situation.
In early November that year, the West decided not to intervene in the Hungarian revolution, and the Soviet troops came flooding over the border. My family — father, 36, mother, 32, brother, 4, and I, a 7-year-old — left Budapest on Nov. 13 with the clothes on our backs and what we could carry. We crossed the border into Austria the next day. A total of 200,000 refugees fled Hungary.
After spending a week in a refugee camp, we made it to Vienna, where my parents chose Canada as our destination. There were only two countries accepting Hungarian refugees without quotas: Canada and Venezuela. I am forever grateful my parents chose Canada.
Canada processed our application in less than a week. Medicals were waived. Canada paid for a flight to London. It was at the beginning of the flight that I experienced the helplessness and the precarious position of refugees. We were seated when our family’s name was called out. The flight had been overbooked and they were looking for four seats. I can still picture my father, in his broken German, begging the staff to let our family stay on board. Fortunately, the decisionmaker had a heart and we were allowed to fly.
We were taken to Liverpool, where we boarded the Empress of Britain, arriving in St. John on Dec. 13, one month to the day after leaving Budapest. I later learned the Canadian government had chartered the whole ship for transporting the refugees.
The ship was required because the Canadian government took active steps to encourage Hungarian refugees to come to Canada. The minister of immigration, Alastair Gillespie, personally went to Austria to do this.
How different things are 60 years later. Syria has been in turmoil for years, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict yearly. And what has Canada done? Not very much. There has been no government action similar to the help extended to the Hungarians.
One would have thought we would have learned from the mistakes of the past.
In 1939, Canada, along with Cuba and the United States, turned away the MS St. Louis, which was carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where it is estimated that about half of the refugees died in concentration camps. This stain will remain forever on Canada’s reputation. We should have resolved “never again.”
The picture of the lifeless body of the 3-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face-down on a Turkish beach is seared into our souls. There are tens of thousands of individual Syrian refugee tragedies happening daily. For me, the most painful part of the Kurdi family’s tragedy is that they had relatives in Canada who were willing and anxious to sponsor them. The obstacle was the red tape and the current attitude toward refugees in general and Syrian refugees in particular.
In 1956, my family had no relatives in, or connections to, Canada. Yet we were accepted, welcomed and processed in record time. The Immigration Department found and paid for accommodation for my family in Hamilton, Ont., and gave my parents enough money for a start.
My father started as a labourer and, once he learned the language, was able to practise his profession: engineering. He was a member of the team that developed the first ATM. My brother became a dentist and I went into law. This great country gave us opportunities for which we will be forever grateful.
Canada has a history of welcoming those seeking refuge. They, in turn, have helped to build Canada into a highly regarded and admired nation.
It is sad that we have lost the political will to summon the humanity and the courage needed to extend our hands and hearts to refugees.
It is too late to help young Alan and his family. It is not too late to help other refugees from Syria.