Cana­dian at­ti­tudes to mi­grants on show

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - KAREEM SHA­HEEN

The only sur­pris­ing thing about the saga of Soufi’s restau­rant in Toronto, in this age of xeno­pho­bia, walls and ha­tred, is that it has a happy end­ing. Soufi’s high­lights the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit of the Syr­ian com­mu­nity and the suc­cess of Toronto’s ex­per­i­ment with in­te­gra­tion three years af­ter Canada opened its doors to thou­sands of Syr­ian refugees.

Last month, how­ever, weeks be­fore the Cana­dian fed­eral elec­tions, the pop­u­lar down­town eatery had to shut down af­ter it re­ceived nu­mer­ous death threats. How­ever, due to an out­pour­ing of sup­port from Cana­di­ans and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, the own­ers later re­versed course and re­opened the restau­rant.

The episode ex­em­pli­fied risks and alien­ation that im­mi­grants and refugees face daily, as well as the ca­pac­ity of right-wing ex­trem­ists to spread ter­ror. But it also high­lighted stereo­typ­i­cal, one-di­men­sional nar­ra­tives. Of­ten well-in­ten­tioned, these sto­ries pi­geon­hole new ar­rivals as grate­ful mem­bers of a com­mu­nity that re­mains at arm’s length and sub­jected to a sub­tle form of oth­er­ing that in ex­treme cases leads to a back­lash like Soufi’s ex­pe­ri­enced.

Let’s back up a lit­tle. In 2015, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau di­rected his gov­ern­ment to re­set­tle thou­sands of Syr­ian refugees who were flee­ing four years of in­ternecine war and ter­ror. Many had lan­guished for years in refugee camps in Turkey, Le­banon and Jor­dan, es­cap­ing Syr­ian pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad’s bar­rel bombs and chem­i­cal weapons and ISIS sav­agery. The flight of so many peo­ple to safer shores in Europe sent shock­waves through the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, fuelling the rise of xeno­pho­bic far-right na­tion­al­ism in the West. US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was elected on prom­ises to build walls and shut down Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion to the United States.

In Canada, the most hor­rific em­bod­i­ment of far-right ha­tred was a shoot­ing at a mosque in Que­bec City in Jan­uary 2017 by an anti-im­mi­grant univer­sity stu­dent that killed six peo­ple. In the 2019 fed­eral elec­tions, a new for­ma­tion called the Peo­ple’s Party of Canada (PPC), led by Maxime Bernier, ran a cam­paign hinged on anti-im­mi­gra­tion, anti-mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and anti-crony cap­i­tal­ism. The party sought to em­u­late Mr Trump’s pol­i­tics. Hap­pily, this may be the last you hear of Mr Bernier as Cana­di­ans thor­oughly re­jected his party. No mem­bers were elected and Mr Bernier lost his own seat. The rea­son Soufi’s was tar­geted was be­cause the owner’s son, Alaa Al Soufi, took part in an “an­tifa” protest in the city of Hamil­ton against Mr Bernier (Soufi’s own­ers are im­mi­grants but many of their staff are refugees). Mr Al Soufi ap­peared in a video along­side other pro­test­ers who tried to block an el­derly woman from at­tend­ing an event for Mr Bernier. Other pro­test­ers are seen yelling at the woman.

Af­ter Mr Al Soufi was iden­ti­fied by Mr Bernier’s sup­port­ers on­line and his per­sonal de­tails re­leased, his fam­ily’s restau­rant be­gan re­ceiv­ing death threats. The dif­fer­ence be­tween Canada and other western first-world na­tions is that lead­ers on all sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum con­demned the be­hav­iour of the PPC’s trolls, who ap­peared to be more nu­mer­ous than Mr Bernier’s ac­tual sup­port­ers.

But look­ing be­yond the be­hav­iour of Mr Al Soufi and the an­tifa pro­test­ers (he ob­structed the path of the el­derly woman but stayed silent even as the oth­ers shouted at her), it is worth not­ing that the ac­tions of one im­mi­grant were im­me­di­ately seized by Mr Bernier’s trolls who gen­er­alised them to ap­ply to the larger Syr­ian com­mu­nity and tar­get a restau­rant that the Soufi fam­ily had toiled for years to build. For Mr Bernier’s trolls, Mr al-Soufi had dared to raise his voice, not con­tent to know his place.

In an es­say in the Guardian,

Dina Nay­eri, an Ira­nian refugee who set­tled in the US and UK, de­scribed this im­per­a­tive to be silent: “If I failed to stir up in my­self enough grate­ful­ness, or if I failed to prop­erly dis­play it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western free­dom, the prom­ise of sec­u­lar schools and un­cen­sored books… The refugee has to be less ca­pa­ble than the na­tive, need­ier; he must stay in his place. That’s the only way grat­i­tude will be ac­cepted. Once he es­capes con­trol, he con­firms his iden­tity as the devil.”

This nar­ra­tive of the grate­ful, hard-work­ing refugee is all-per­va­sive. Sto­ries such as the one from 2016 of the tai­lor from Aleppo who be­came the life­line of a Cana­dian wed­ding when he used his sewing kit to fix a tear in the bride’s dress ap­pear with some reg­u­lar­ity. It is as though facile re­minders of the hu­man­ity of Syr­i­ans will lead scep­tics to em­pathise with their predica­ment and open doors to those flee­ing con­flict. Refugees are eas­ily scape­goated dur­ing tough eco­nomic times de­spite their well-doc­u­mented con­tri­bu­tions to the econ­omy. This is the case in Turkey, where refugees went from be­ing brothers and guests to be­ing blamed for a down­turn di­rectly caused by the gov­ern­ment’s dis­as­trous eco­nomic poli­cies.

Many Syr­i­ans, as well as refugees and mi­grants of all stripes, owe their lives and well-be­ing to the fact that Canada, Ger­many and other na­tions opened their doors to them at their mo­ment of most dire need. But they are not servile foils to western gen­eros­ity.

In the greater sum of it all, they will help build great things and their new homes will be richer for their pres­ence. And their voices will be heard.

The restau­rant had to deal with threats as the owner’s son protested against a party with an anti-im­mi­grant agenda


The Trudeau ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­set­tled Syr­ian refugees

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