Panel discussion sheds light on Syrian refugee crisis

On Mar. 22, the newly-founded group, Brock for Refugees, held their inaugural event on campus in hosting an open panel discussion concerning the Syrian Refugee crisis.

The Brock Press had reported the initial on-campus effort made by professor Ebru Ustundag as she organized an open forum to bring awareness to the escalating issues surrounding displaced Syrian refugees back in October 2015. Brock for Refugees, a club dedicated to promoting and advocating for international refugees, is the outcome of this initial effort along with the work of Kristen Smith, Manager of Student and Community Outreach at Brock.

The club selected a panel consisting of eight individuals who are either professional experts in some area affecting Syrian refugees or are leaders and/or spokespeople in the Syrian refugee crisis. The panelists included: Patrick Foster representing UNICEF Brock; Terrance Wade, from Brock’s Faculty of Health Science; Bahirah Jandali for Brock for Refugees; Majed Azrak and Ahmad Fehail, representing Save Our Syria; Gloria Nafzigar for Amnesty International; and Jeff Burch from the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre. These panelists were able to shed some broad insights into the very specific issues that Syrian refugees face today and how we as Canadian citizens and university students can advocate for this cause.

Zanab Shah, third-year Medical Sciences student and member of Brock for Refugees, opened the panel discussion by delivering some context to the situation and some statistics. Shah stated that 11.1 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes and 13.5 million Syrians are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. She also briefed the audience about the increasing restrictions that European countries are placing on their borders which is causing a rise in dangerous and illegal human smuggling into the EU. Along with fatalities from human smuggling operations, refugees are also at risk from the spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, worsening weather conditions, lack of resources in refugee camps and forced expulsion from refugee camps, like the Calais Jungle in France.

“The main takeaway from the panel for me was that as Canada accepts 25,000 plus refugees, there are still an overwhelming amount of Syrian and international refugees who have nowhere to go. It’s important to make note of victories and Canada deserves a pat on the back but 98.4 per cent of Syrian refugees remain in limbo and there are approximately 60 million refugees worldwide,” said Shah.

A diverse panel spoke about various issues concerning the Syrian Refugee Crisis / Taylor Wallace

A diverse panel spoke about various issues concerning the Syrian Refugee Crisis / Taylor Wallace

The first panel member to address the audience was Jandali, a third-year Computer Science student, who shared her personal experience of how the crisis in Syria has affected her life as well as the lives of her family and friends. Jandali’s family fled Syria after the 1982 Hama massacre (40,000 civilian deaths) carried out under the command of the Assad dictatorship. Growing up, Jandali would visit her family in Syria and was naturally confused about the circumstances she found herself in.

“As a child I grew up with questions why we fear [Assad] and why we had this situation. When I asked my Grandmother she would say, ‘The walls can hear you and they can hear us talking now’,” Jandali said in her speech.

The panel then went on to take questions from Twitter. Dr. Wade spoke about the adverse physical, mental and emotional health issues that refugees are susceptible to, as well as the correlation between immigration to Canada and low income which only exacerbates these initial health problems.

“In my research, I work with children and I look at adverse experiences in childhood like maltreatment and exposure and what the consequences are for their life trajectory. Generally, these events have long-reaching consequences throughout their life with respect to mental health, risk taking behaviors and physical health. These issues have very long lasting effects like PTSD trauma and that’s why these issues are not just immediate but life long for a lot of children,” concluded Dr. Wade.

Foster then recounted his story and motivation behind his UNICEF walk from St. Catharines to Toronto in order raise money and awareness for Syrian refugees.

“The goal was to generate awareness around the issue and I believed I could do it. The walk was symbolic of the struggle Syrian refugees endure. However, we stayed in hotels at night and had a car ride back to St. Catharines, so it wasn’t an attempt to simulate their experience. Refugees don’t have a home to go back to,” said Foster. He concluded that this effort raised $4100 which was matched by the government.

Fehail from Save our Syria was asked to speak about the immediate needs for the incoming Syrian refugees in Canada. He responded that they need a feeling of peace and home because they’re most worried about whether or not they will be successful and if their hopes will come true for their children. Fehail elaborated on his point by arguing that accepting and accommodating refugees is an investment for the future of Canada.

“[Syrian refugees] have valuable knowledge. Some of them are highly skilled, educated and eager to learn and develop but they need basic skills like language and that’s part of the investment we need to make in them,” said Fehail.

He ended by reassuring the audience that something small and insignificant may not seem like a lot but whatever small things people can donate may change the way a landed refugee may see hope and a brighter future.

Afterwards, Nafzigar spoke at length about the barriers faced by Syrian refugees and the need for Canadian citizens to continue to influence the government to take action on this issue.

“We are increasingly seeing countries give up on cornerstone laws like the 1951 UN International Refugee Convention. Europe is essentially saying refugees no longer have the right to seek asylum in the continent. The fear is that every other country in the world will follow Europe’s example. Right now the language is how to stop the flow of refugees not how do we protect them and ensure international laws are being respected,” said Nafzigar.

She also discussed the prevalence of stereotypes which Canadians believe to be true about refugees from the Middle East and how these sentiments perpetuate xenophobia and racism within our country.
Burch from the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre stated that we already have a refugee population within the Niagara region of around 200 to 250 Syrians. He mirrored Nafzigar’s concerns and addressed the issue of linking Syrian refugees to terrorism.

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“This issue can be fixed with proper education about who is actually coming into Canada. For example, we’re accepting 235 Syrian refugees in St. Catharines today and the demographic is all young families with 60 per cent of the refugees being children. There is an incredibly stringent screening process that refugees go through which is something that can confront those prejudices,” said Burch.

The panel discussion was held in a packed Sankey Chambers with a mixture of students, faculty and members of the community all in attendance. There was an overwhelming sense from the audience, panelists and Brock for Refugees organizers that the event achieved its goal and provided a genuine opportunity for people to learn about the Syrian refugee crisis and gain a new perspective on the issue.

“It’s phenomenal that Brock has such an interest and passion that so many people would come out to talk about Syrian refugees,” said Nafzigar.

If you are interested in getting involved with this issue email brockforrefugees@gmail.com or contact UNICEF Brock on their Facebook page for more information.

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