Time for Vancouver and B.C. to say ‘refugees welcome here’

Alan Kurdi – shattered hopes.

Alan Kurdi – shattered hopes.

It’s a global story with a very local connection for those of us here in British Columbia.

The photograph of a drowned three-year old boy, Alan Kurdi, has now been seen around the world, a haunting image that has drawn the world’s attention to an historic refugee crisis. Kurdi, his brother Ghalib and their mother Rehanna, died earlier this month while attempting to cross the waters from Turkey to Greece; the family, like countless others, are victims of the devastation wrought by the war in Syria.

But the Kurdi family was also a victim of government policy in both Canada and Turkey. The boys’ aunt, Tima, lives in Coquitlam, B.C. and had personally appealed to this country’s immigration minister for help and advice on applying to bring members of her extended family here.

On Saturday, Sept. 5, I attended a public memorial for the Kurdi family, held at Vancouver’s SFU Habour Centre campus. The downtown facility didn’t have a room large enough to hold all those who came to pay their respects. The Kurdish community turned out in big numbers – I saw more than a few wearing shirts emblazoned with ‘Kurdistan’ – but there was also a diverse and strong turnout from the general public. The theatre was more than packed, with people standing and sitting in the aisles. A phalanx of media cameras squeezed into the back row. Speakers were set up in the main lobby and overflow seating improvised.

One of Alan Kurdi’s cousins gave a moving eulogy, appealing for this tragedy to spark transformative change, for the world to say ‘Enough!’ and finally begin to take serious action to open the borders to the millions of refugees left stateless by violence in the Middle East.

Atypically, this column isn’t going to enumerate the failures of government policy toward refugees. That’s been done effectively elsewhere (I’d encourage readers to check out the online resource www.neverhome.ca for more information.)

Rather, this is an appeal to people in Vancouver and across B.C. Cities and towns in this province can do their part to step up and welcome refugees fleeing terror and war in Syria. Following the lead of the “Sanctuary City” campaign, we need to ask our municipal governments to issue declarations that refugees are welcome here. And then we need to back those words up with practical initiatives.

Alan Kurdi’s family hoped that one day he and his older brother would get to live near their aunt in Coquitlam, here in this province. They found the door closed, and were betrayed by various governments along the way. The least we can do is make sure doors are opened to others in a similar predicament.

B.C.’s history has been marred by shameful exclusions –
such as the Komagata Maru ship that was turned back from South Asia due to the official xenophobia of the day, and the Head Tax against Chinese migrants.

But this province has also seen waves of migration by people feeling war – proud moments when locals put out the welcome mat for those in distress. Many of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Canada in the late 1970s came to Vancouver, as did Chilean refugees who escaped the Pinochet coup regime of the same era. More recently, many Kosovars fleeing the NATO-Serbia war in 1999, as well as Afghans and Iraqis, have settled here in Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver, in particular, was once known as a haven for war resisters who came north to avoid the draft in the United States for the Vietnam War. War refugees of all backgrounds are woven into the fabric of B.C.’s largest city.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, in fact, arguably owes his position to the political work and career of the late Jim Green, a key founder of the mayor’s governing Vision Vancouver. Green came to Canada during the late 1960s, one of tens of thousands who wanted no part of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.

A diverse, ostensibly progressive city like Vancouver needs to make a clear statement. More than a gesture of respect for the family of Alan Kurdi in recognition of all they’ve lost, it’s the right thing to do. Actually, it’s the least we can do.

Refugees are welcome here.