On March 27th, The Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness (SCSC) convened an event in Montreal, entitled From Integration to Inclusion: A Roundtable on Refugee Reception.
As millions of people around the world continue to be forcibly displaced from their homes, Montreal remains a place where people seek safety. In a city defined by its diversity, it is crucial that focus not only be on integration but also on fostering inclusion and belonging for all. To that end, this special event brought together asylum seekers and refugees, and key organizations, institutions, and individuals that work with them, in an effort to enhance collaboration and linkages across sectors, services, and the greater Montreal community.
SCSC Research Analysts Jessica Farber and Celine Thomas opened the evening by sharing information about the Global Movement for Social Connectedness, led by Kim Samuel, and introducing the speakers. First, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UNHCR’s Representative in Canada, offered an overview of the situation facing refugees and migrants around the world. He noted that, despite common perceptions, countries in Europe and North America are not hosting large proportions of displaced people; it is rather developing countries in the Middle East and Latin America that are receiving the highest numbers of refugees.
While Mr. Beuze commended cities like Montreal for expressing solidarity, he emphasized that this is an important moment for Canada. For context, he pointed out that what Canada witnesses in a year in terms of refugee intake is what Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh has witnessed in a night. Not only does Canada have the capacity to let people in, he argued, the country needs to confront xenophobia and prove itself the multicultural society it proclaims to be.
The audience then watched a video presentation by Ana Sofia Hibon, Social Connectedness Fellow (2017), who conducted research on the current state of refugee integration in Montreal. She highlighted Montreal’s unique role in resettling refugees, as it receives about half of all refugees resettled in Quebec. She also highlighted the key differences in access to services resources between government sponsored and privately sponsored refugees, in addition to asylum seekers and refugee claimants. The fact that 84% of refugees resettled in Montreal are privately sponsored, is a testament to the level of commitment and initiative of the city’s civil society. However, as Ana Sofia reminded the audience, Quebec’s private sponsorship program has been put on hold until at least June 2018.
Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, International Board Member of Médecins Sans Frontières and Professor of Practice at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development, then spoke about the appalling inhuman conditions she has witnessed while visiting refugee camps across Europe. She also shed light on the crisis of forced displacement unfolding on our own continent; people fleeing war-like violence in Central America who end up living in contexts of similar danger in Mexico, a supposed country of refuge.
Professor Kiddell-Monroe then introduced Laura Zazueta, who came to Canada from Mexico after facing persecution for speaking out about human rights. She described the shock of arriving in Montreal, both in terms of the culture and the cold weather. Language barriers, complicated paperwork, and general feelings of uncertainty were also extremely challenging to overcome. Now a Canadian citizen, Laura urged the audience to treat newcomers with respect and to recognize their skills and abilities.
Following Laura, Leza Mesrob Shahinian, a young woman and former refugee from Iraq, told the audience about her experience arriving in Canada 7 years ago and the language challenges she faced. Despite the initial hurdles she faced in trying to learn from her older peers in her French class, she made a connection with a newcomer from Iran who encouraged her to keep learning the language. Now she is also a citizen and is studying environmental design.
In a special video address, the Vice Mayor of Athens for Migrants, Refugees and Municipal Decentralization, Eleftherios Papagiannakis, expressed his solidarity with the City of Montreal as a fellow Sanctuary City. Also joining in virtually from Athens, Chrysafo Arvaniti of MSF Greece, explained MSF’s pilot project, “Urban Spaces,” as a means of creating welcoming spaces in cities that receive large numbers of forced migrants. Both emphasized the important role that cities must play in overcoming the migrant crisis and addressing the needs of individuals and families, and the importance of building strong networks between cities.
During the roundtable discussion, Narod Odabasiyan, Director of the Montreal-based organization Hay Doun, highlighted their success in sponsoring 2,300 refugees from Syria and 200 from Iraq in recent years. However, she noted that the organization maintains a long waiting list of 400 people and growing. Without public funding, she explained, the organization must turn to private sponsors. Ms. Odabasiyan also drew attention to the waning enthusiasm in Montreal for supporting refugees, thinking back to the groundswell of support from a couple of years ago. Support must be sustained, she argued, so that the needs of all individuals are met.
Jenny Jeanes of Action Réfugiés Montreal discussed her organization’s work protecting the rights and dignity of migrants in Canadian immigration detention centres. Action Réfugiés visits these detention centres and offers support and resources to detainees; for example, communications tools, such as international calling cards, to help find their documentation (detainees are only allowed local calls and are not permitted to use the Internet). In particular, Ms. Jeanes underscored the secretive nature of these detention centres on national security grounds and how Canadians have very little knowledge of what occurs there.
During the question and answer period, audience members asked a number of questions on issues ranging from the claims process to access to resources. One audience member asked about what Quebec is doing to address language barriers. Ms. Odabasiyan of Hay Doun replied that the provincial government offers $115 per week to newcomers to learn French, but only over 5 years. Another audience member asked about what people can do to help protect individuals facing deportation. Ms. Jeanes mentioned that it may be time for Canada to revisit its immigration laws, which do not define a specific timeline in the event a removal order is issued, which creates variability in terms of the dignity people are afforded.
Following the discussion, the organizers invited attendees to sign a community outcome statement which included the following recommendations to the City of Montreal:
- Increased access to public services for asylum seekers and refugees
- Increased support for frontline service providers and community organizations
- Changing the public perception of refugees as a burden on society and combating discrimination and racism
To view the full outcome statement and to pledge your solidarity, click HERE.
To end the evening, participants were invited to partake in a community dinner prepared by Les Filles Fattoush, an organization run by Syrian refugee women. The co-founders spoke of the important role employment plays in the integration process for refugees. Les Filles Fattoush was created to help Syrian refugee women gain employment experience using their culinary talents.
SCSC thanks all of the speakers and attendees for making this event an informative and worthwhile evening of storytelling and action. Stay tuned to www.socialconnectedness.org for information about upcoming events!