Eric Karjaluoto

What Kind of Canada Will Ours Be?

As a kid, I wondered about those who didn’t challenge the Nazis. I couldn’t understand why so many stood idle, while the SS rounded their neighbours up for slaughter. I believed that humanity had changed in the years that had gone by. I reasoned that we’d never be complicit in such acts, as a result of collective inaction.

As time passed, I learned of modern-day atrocities taking place, around the world. Although I wanted to do something, I felt unable. Sure, I could attend a march, or wear a t-shirt. However, I reasoned that these horrors were too far away for me to do anything significant. So, I stood idle, just like those I had once condemned for doing so.

Time has a cruel sense of humor, and mocks the naivete we begin our lives with. I believe this is what turns us into cynics: witnessing our own fallibility—and inability to change the patterns we despise.

A few weeks ago, my wife, Amea, walked into my home-office, and broke down. Her eyes were red, and her chin wobbled. She gasped as she tried to verbalize her anguish at the suffering of those trying to escape the violence of Syria. She didn’t have enough air in her lungs to speak the words. Instead, she spoke in sobs. I didn’t know how to respond. Amea resolved to do something.

In the weeks that followed, she read and thought on this matter. Then, she coordinated with a multicultural organization that assists immigrants with settlement and integration. One of their members agreed to provide an informational session to those in our community. He’d meet with anyone interested, to share ideas and advice on how to help those refugees entering our city.

Amea was excited by this opportunity, but a few responded to it with discomfort. She was told that such an event might be “controversial.” We later discussed how such controversy is moot. Refugees are coming to Canada, and many other nations, regardless of how some might feel. The question, now, is simply how we accommodate them.

This was by no means an isolated response. I’ve spoken with people who—seriously—believe all of the incoming refugees are terrorists. (Admittedly, these thoughts aren’t representative of most Canadians’ opinions.) Meanwhile, the words I read on social media, and the actions of some politicians, leave me uneasy. I cringe at how often I hear people speak of refugees and terrorists as though they are one in the same.

The notions they present leave me with a not-so-great answer to my childhood question. Perhaps we, as a species, haven’t evolved all that much. This is a great humanitarian tragedy, yet, some aren’t prepared to act.

Although these responses are disheartening, I don’t hold any ill-will toward the people I mention.

Rather, I realize that the notion of community varies from one person to the next. It comes with different boundaries. These are affected by fear, and how provincial a life one leads. For some, community is family—and family alone. For others, it extends to those who share the same space, or come from related socioeconomic backgrounds. For yet others, community extends beyond borders and transcends race and faith.

The anti-refugee responses that I find so beguiling aren’t representative of people who don’t care. Rather, these are knee-jerk reactions—shaped by fear.

Fear surrounds us. Governments use it to sneak through policies we’d otherwise contest. The news media uses it as fodder to keep their businesses alive. (Given their grim economic uncertainty, they’re essentially forced to do so.) And, yes, terrorists cause not only death and carnage; they also wield fear as a weapon that extends further than their weapons can. They often do so quite successfully.

Frightened people can be blinded to the reality of this situation. They fail to appreciate that those risking their lives to leave Syria are trying to escape the very same horrors we’re afraid of. Yet, many confuse these refugees as a potential source of terror—largely out of ignorance. And recently in Paris, real terrorists seeded future decades of similarly fearful reactions.

Today, you and I must decide what comes next.

Will we capitulate to fear? Do we fall into the trap that these terrorists set for us? Are we willing to feed Islamophobia and see survivors as threats?

I’m not a scholar, nor do I hold any great knowledge of international affairs. I don’t know how to end terrorism or solve the problems of the Middle East. (That said, I doubt anyone does.) My hunch, though, is that we can’t extinguish terrorism with gunfire. Perhaps I’m idealistic or naïve. But am I?

How do you attack an enemy that has no country or clear base of operations? How do you disable a distributed movement? How do coerce an assailant, who’s willing to sacrifice anything?

If you have answers for these questions, I’m eager to hear them. Yet, I see little advancement on this point. Global powers that seem best-equipped to address such problems appear impotent in this matter. Meanwhile, we in Canada and the United States relinquished many freedoms (think C-51 or the Patriot Act) to affect terrorism. Still, terrorism remains.

This leads me to ponder—from a layperson’s standpoint—what other options might exist. I try to understand the motives of those who are willing to cause such anguish. I ask myself what would lead me to believe that I had no other choice but violence. I wonder how ISIS representatives affect this sort of mindset in those they recruit. (Stephanie MacLellan shares some thoughts on this topic, in a recent editorial.)

We can’t disarm every lunatic who’s willing to cause acts of terror. We won’t reduce tensions with air strikes. We cannot enact a response that will “even the score.” I’m left thinking that the only way to combat terrorism, is to change the context that enables such mindsets. Do our leaders need to take a new tack? Should they focus on creating economic/social stability in these regions—instead of responding with military action?

Terrorism is a part of our daily lives. Not a week passes without word of another bombing in some part of the world, or school shooting. Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a pattern in many of these. Whether a radical Islamist, or a young, white American male, assailants commonly seem isolated. These appear to be individuals without community, who feel disconnected from those around them. Put differently: vulnerable people who succumb to darkness.

We, as citizens of the world have a choice to make. Do we, too, follow that path? Do we fear—and turn away—those at our borders who seek safety for their families? Do we simply retreat and build taller fences?

Or, do we show them that we are not willing to be victims of fear and terror? Do we open our doors to those who’ve faced unspeakable horrors, and sacrificed so much? Do we open our basement suites, and spare rooms, to provide shelter? Do we feed, clothe, and help them rebuild their lives? Do we welcome these victims into our communities?

I’ve never been much for patriotism. Lately, though, I feel different. In our recent election, we chose hope over fear. We came together and stood up for beliefs that better represented the kind of world we want to live in. We decided that we deserved better. I’ve never before felt so connected to my fellow Canadians.

In this spirit, I implore you to deny fear. Let us welcome these new Canadians. Let’s show them the warmth and community that makes this nation so remarkable. One day they will speak of the kindness our nation exhibited at this dark time.

It’s in every effort we make to help one another that we take a strike at those who aim to have us to live—and act—in fear.

Post-script: If you’re unclear on the living situations experienced by Syrian refugees, please take a moment to read this read this brief summary, which Mercy Corps compiled. It will give you a better sense of the situation. If you’re more of a numbers type, this New York Times piece is eye opening.

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