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.

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