On a cold windless January night, Kate McKenna walked into a meeting to consider, with some hesitance, sponsoring a Syrian refugee family to move to Nova Scotia. “Don’t commit to too much,” she reminded herself, as she joined a small group in the gym of the St. James Parish Hall in Mahone Bay. But McKenna’s uncertainty wasn’t borne of unkindness. Just the opposite. Where she works, in a community-based organization that supports high-risk youth, people call her “Great Kate” without irony.
By the time the meeting wrapped up, that Friday night in early 2016, she’d signed up to be a core member of her group’s sponsorship team. That meant becoming part of what the government calls its “Groups of Five and Community Sponsors” programs—Canada’s admired, admirable strategy to enable small groups of private citizens who want to help with refugee resettlement. Nine months later, McKenna was standing in the arrivals wing of the Stanfield International Airport waiting to meet “her family.” Shahnaz Hemo, Rezan Iso and their four-year-old son, Ali, escaped Syria, and arrived in Nova Scotia from Turkey, in September.
Back then, McKenna says, she couldn't imagine they’d become something akin to real family. Fast forward six months, and now she can’t imagine her life without them. “They’re my best friends” she says simply.
“I spend more time with Shahnaz than anybody else,” McKenna explains, hands upturned, in disbelief, warmth and maybe still, yet, a bit of surprise. Then, something behind her face shifts. “I don’t want to go back to my life the way it was before they were here.”
Before they were here, McKenna and her husband, Alex Dumaresq, had just made a move of their own: from north end Halifax to Lunenburg County, and life on a farm. Their second child was born shortly thereafter, and they traded walks in the city for morning visits with cows, lowing, just beyond their farmhouse. McKenna says they had friends, but no community.
In Syria, Hemo was a law student, her husband, Iso, worked as a tailor. In the space of a year, they saw their homeland, iconic for both its history and cultural modernity, transformed beyond recognition. What began as peaceful protests, spawned by the Arab Spring in 2011, turned Damascus into a war zone under Bashar al-Assad’s crushing and brutal suppression. Car bombings and violent clashes between rebels and government armies shuttered windows and doors, forcing those who remained in the city to stay inside.
Hemo and Iso escaped to Turkey, but it cost them almost everything. She was seven months pregnant.
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Five months ago, when McKenna and Hemo first met, they had little to no language in common, and no translator, except a couple people around town speaking just a little Arabic, helping out here and there when they could. Even now, communication remains “a process,” relieved, in more confusing moments, by Google Translate.
“It takes an hour to have a normal conversation that would take five minutes,” McKenna explains, when pressed to describe how “it works.” But she says there’s an emphasis on spending time together, in Syrian culture, that just isn’t as prominent, or natural, here in Canada. She tilts her head a moment, considering how to describe Hemo: “She’s more open to friendship.”
Then came the Friday of US president Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim order, which caused airports across America to fill with detained immigrants and refugees. And as the arrivals sections, and streets around them, filled with thousands upon thousands of protesters and lawyers, it struck McKenna, not with shock, but with fear, as her own friendship with two Kurdish Syrian Muslims, grew deeper.
Back home in Canada, prime minister Justin Trudeau responded to the American travel ban swiftly, with a message on Twitter.
Trudeau’s tweet has been re-shared more than 400,000 times, and was lauded online, but it also prompted confusion about how serious this “welcome” is. Because days before Trump triggered international outrage with his Muslim ban, Canada’s federal department of immigration, refugees and citizenship issued—very quietly—notice of its own policy change: it would end the “Groups of Five and Community Sponsors” program.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
To be sure, this is the end of a single facet of a plan that remains overwhelmingly pro-refugee, and is nothing like the ban Trump wants to impose; in its official notice Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says in 2017 it will “bring many more refugees to Canada than we have in the past.” But community sponsorship is wildly popular—after then-immigration minister John McCallum signed an order in December to extend “Groups of Five and Community Sponsors” by a year or 1,000 applications, whichever comes first, it took just over a month to reach the application cap, a remarkable demonstration of willingness, country-wide, given the program is still in its infancy.
“I just don’t understand why they would cut a program that is working so well,” says refugee sponsor Kate McKenna.
That the program ended the same week Trump launched his ban, and Trudeau publicly promised to open the doors to those “fleeing persecution,” left many wondering if Canada is as open to refugees on paper, as our prime minister claims we are on Twitter.
“It was a coincidence,” says Halifax-based immigration lawyer Elizabeth Wozniak about the timing of the policy announcements. As for the matter of whether 1,000 applications is the right place to cap community sponsors? “It is a very low number,” Wozniak says, “when you think about it.”
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Donald Trump’s anti-immigration order—which is currently suspended while an American court considers its legality—seeks to put a 120-day ban on refugee applications to the US from six Muslim-majority countries, and indefinitely ban Syrian refugees. Even people who had successfully gone through security clearance, a process that can last years, would be turned away. That means thousands of people who were already cleared for resettlement will be back in refugee camps, and foreign countries, starting from square one.
This idea of forcing people to re-enter the peril they finally managed to escape is what really bothers Wozniak. “If there are Syrians en route”—to the US just to be turned back, as in the order’s first, unchallenged, days—“that shouldn’t be happening. It’s wrong and horrific.” She pauses for a moment. “They are going to be persecuted,” she explains.
That’s why Wozniak joined with more than 100 lawyers across Canada in calling for the Trudeau government to eliminate the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, an arrangement made between the two countries in 2002. The agreement ensures that claimants only seek refuge in the country they physically arrive in, a deal that made more sense at the time, Wozniak says, but attitudes and policies have since diverted. It means Canada can’t actually accept any refugees turned away by the United States, and it’s why some humanitarian groups and legal advocates found Trudeau’s tweet misleading.
It also explains why some immigrants in America, who don’t have permanent status, are risking their lives to sneak into Canada, illegally. Three weeks before Trump’s ban was announced, a Ghanaian man almost froze to death walking from North Dakota to the Manitoba border.
Wozniak’s downtown Halifax firm, North Star Immigration Law, is the largest of its kind in the Maritimes, and she says there’s been a spike in requests for information from people in America. “We’re getting emails daily from people who are saying ‘I need to get out of here.’”
It’s worth noting, she points out, the chasm between standard processing times: In Canada, refugees are assessed by a judge, and told whether they can stay or not, within three months of arrival. In the US, Wozniak says the same process can take five “or even up to 10 years.”
Though the immigration systems operate differently, the security clearance policies for refugees in the US and Canada, are actually very similar, according to Wozniak. She says communication between bureaucrats in both Canadian and American departments is friendly, and data sharing is common. Meaning if there was no Third Country Agreement, the correspondence required to share information between the countries, allowing Canada to accept pre-cleared refugees who were headed for the States, is already established.
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In Kate McKenna’s sponsor group, it wasn’t long after Hemo, Iso and Ali arrived that they began discussing the possibility of working to bring more of Hemo’s family here, too. Specifically? McKenna pauses just for an instant and takes a deep breath.
“Shahnaz’s mother, father, sister, brother, brother’s wife, their child, a niece,” she stops for a split second. “Oh yeah. And one sister still in Syria.” Many of Hemo’s family members are in Turkey, but they’re in a region known for its hostility against the Kurdish, and it’s been a difficult transition.
Looking through pictures of Hemo’s siblings recently, McKenna pointed out a face she recognized from other photos. “Oh, that’s Renahi!” she said. Then, teasing Hemo, “She’s your favourite.”
But the lightness of the moment dispersed, and Hemo became stern. “No,” she answered, affronted, gesturing “no” and “none” with her hands. And then, with effort, to make sure she expressed herself clearly, “I love them all.”
Three women, strangers, helped her cross the border into Turkey, as she carried her son for hours through rain and mud.
I’m talking with Hemo and McKenna over FaceTime video chat. It’s a recent Friday night in February. The two families have gathered, to eat pizza—Hawaiian for McKenna, vegetarian for Hemo—with their children, at Iso and Hemo’s house. Anyone who’s ever been around children under the age of five at 6pm can intuit the cacophanus bursts of shrieking, excitement and demand in the background. It’s the unmistakable charge of voices hearty and healthful, in youth.
I ask Hemo about her journey out of Syria. McKenna explains my question, for they have their own shorthand now. Hemo says Iso had left ahead of her, to Turkey, to try to establish security, before his wife and new child arrived.
“What did you leave with?” I try to ask Hemo. The clamouring of children in the background overwhelms her answer, but it doesn’t obscure her face. There is an undeniable intelligence in Hemo, a determination in her eyes that cuts through the poor video connection. She is clear, sharp and focused.
McKenna confirms Hemo’s answer to me: Only what she could carry.
From the right of the screen, Iso appears in the frame. Black hair curling around an easy, congenial face, he asks McKenna a question I can’t hear.
“He’s asking if you’re police,” she tells me, and I hear her explain, “No, no, no… she’s a journalist.” Iso disappears out of the frame.
I try to ask Hemo what area of law she’s interested in. A voice shouting “Ali, Aliiii!” buzzes over her response, the joyous recognition of correctly pronouncing a word. I’m guessing it’s McKenna and Dumaresq’s younger son, singing out his new friend’s name.
Hemo responds with a kind of tempered regret, in absence of language. “It’s different… in Syria.”
“How did you get from Syria to Turkey?” I ask. Though I can barely hear through the noise, the clarity of her gaze is unshakable.
“I walk… through the fields… hours.” Her eyes pierce through the screen. She goes on to tell me how three women, strangers, helped her cross the border into Turkey, as she carried her son in arms, for hours, through rain and mud.
The easiest response comes with rapidity when I ask her what she misses most about home. “Everything,” she replies passionately, her face immediately alight in the glare of the camera, as she lists friends, clothes and food, laughing all the while.
McKenna speaks up, staring at her friend, in pride. “When she got here, she couldn’t speak English at all.”
“Why is it important for your family to come here?” I ask Hemo. McKenna repeats for me, while behind them toddlers zip in and out of frame, in both volume and vision.
“Every Sunday… tear gas.” Hemo explains, looking directly into the camera. “For the Kurds… tear gas, every Sunday.”
McKenna provides the specifics, about Hemo’s family members in Turkey. “They’re living, they’re breathing,” McKenna says, a hint of defeat belying her voice. “But they don’t feel secure. They don’t feel safe.”
The argument for abandoning the Safe Third Country agreement reached the floor of Canada’s House of Commons, in an emergency debate at the end of January, after Trump signed his order. NDP Immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who brought the discussion forward, is also pushing for the cap on community sponsorships of refugees to be lifted for 2017.
But within hours, the current immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, said the cap will stay in place. For families like Hemo’s, that means the only way to get into Canada this year would be through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as the United Nations Refugee Agency, and Wozniak says the necessary documentation “is almost impossible to get.”
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When I ask Hemo to describe living in Nova Scotia, her answer is complete in one word: “Peaceful,” she responds in an instant. And then, smiling, “not too cold,” a glint of colloquial knowingness shining through her.
In Syria, food is prepared on a carpet on the kitchen floor. And not just by one member of the family, but by everyone. Even babies and toddlers squirm in and out of the group. This is how McKenna and her family eat, and cook, together, with Hemo’s family in their Mahone Bay home. The experience has redefined McKenna’s perspective on ritual, and meal times.
“Here,” McKenna gestures widely with both hands, meaning Canada, “I’m chopping something on my side of the kitchen, and you’re over there” she points, scrunching her face up, almost gleeful, discovering this new-found absurdity. “We don’t even talk to each other.” Eating with Hemo and Iso and their son, they all sit together, peeling potatoes and snacking on dried fruit, as the children—who don’t share a word in English or Arabic—drift in and out of conversation and the room.
When McKenna talks about how well this sponsorship is working, she reverses the typical message of how well it’s working for the new families. “It’s made me a better parent,” she explains, describing the freedom of letting the kids around knives chopping vegetables, or not stressing out when they watch videos on Hemo’s phone. “It’s easy to forget what they’ve been through,” she says, growing quiet.
“Where’s your ring?” McKenna had asked once, pointing to Hemo’s finger. She went on to ask, over some period of time, if people don’t wear wedding rings in Syria.
We do, Hemo explained, slowly, the expression in her eyes changing. Yes, she used to wear a ring. But she had to sell it, to buy formula for the baby.
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Canadian citizens who commit to a sponsorship through the Group of Five program are signing up to support a refugee family financially and emotionally for one year. McKenna says when communities take on these roles, they are relieving the government of a big responsibility, and she can’t understand why the government wouldn’t volunteer to continue to accept this cost-neutral help: “It seems like an amazing bang for your buck.”
Wozniak says this picture isn’t exclusive to McKenna and Hemo’s experience. In legal and immigration circles, it’s widely accepted that private sponsorships are more successful than government sponsorships. The new arrivals aren’t being dropped into neighbourhoods with no contacts or context, Wozniak explains. There are built-in supports, which last long-term.
“I just don’t understand why they would cut a program that is working so well,” McKenna says, confounded, hands dropping, speechless.
There is always music in Hemo and Iso’s house, usually running from YouTube videos that connect to the TV. The music, McKenna says, sounds kind of like “up-tempo folk, with Arabic singers” and an electronic current underneath it. That’s what you’ll get if Hemo is in charge of the playlist. Iso prefers more traditional music.
In these videos, there are often Syrian instruments McKenna doesn’t recognize. Hemo always points out one in particular. Her brother plays it. “He’ll play it for you when he gets here,” she promises McKenna.
Along with his more traditional music, Iso has been working on teaching McKenna a Kurdish dance, since arriving, in the fall. Earnestly trying to keep up with the layering footwork, and the shoulder snaps, months in, McKenna finally had a breakthrough. It was New Year’s Eve, a night of many texts and pictures from Syrians marking the last night of the year, in countries on the other side of the globe, so far from their homeland, and farther still, from each other.
McKenna was thrilled when she managed to shuffle through the paces of the dance. “By the end of the year, I’ll have it!” she smilingly announced to her teacher. Iso, having just learned how to count past 10 in English the previous week, caught her off guard with his reply: “Maybe in 50 years.”
Maggie Rahr is a freelance journalist in Halifax.