Terror attacks shouldn’t change attitudes to refugees: MCC BC executive director

Abbotsford-based organization has received 'unprecedented' number of inquiries for those wanting to help refugees.

  • Nov. 18, 2015 9:00 a.m.

Attacks in Paris have renewed debate over how best to address the ongoing refugee crisis.

Terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday shouldn’t change Canadian attitudes or policies towards those fleeing violence in Syria or elsewhere, says Wayne Bremner, executive director of the Abbotsford-based Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) BC, which has already helped nearly a dozen churches apply to sponsor refugees.

Although much is still unknown about those who planned and carried out the bombings and shootings that killed 129 people, the attacks are believed to be linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), which is engaged in bloody conflict in a number of Middle Eastern countries, resulting in widespread destruction, death and displacement of civilian populations.

Five of the nine attackers had been identified as of press time. All five had previously visited Syria and were of French nationality. Another man is believed to have travelled on a fake Syrian passport. But the attacks have prompted some to call for the government to scale back its efforts to resettle those affected by the refugee crisis, many of whom have come from countries where ISIS is active – including Syria and Iraq.

During the election, the Liberal government had pledged to bring 25,000 refugees into Canada by the end of the year. Details of that initiative were still being worked out when terrorists struck Paris. This week, the Conservative Premier of Saskatchewan Brad Wall called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to suspend his plan to speed up the resettlement of refugees in Canada, although Ontario and Quebec say they are still on board.

Bremner, though, said it would be a “rather tragic situation” if security concerns caused Canada to back away from efforts to help refugees.

“It’s really unfortunate that the actions of a very small number of people would cause large concern regarding the Syrian population as a whole,” he said.

Bremner noted that the attacks in Paris are a symptom of the very same type of fighting that has displaced two-thirds of Syrians and caused many to seek refuge in Europe. Bremner said screening protocols need to be followed, but that Canadians shouldn’t be afraid of those seeking to come here.

“There’s a good process in place,” said Bremner, who noted that refugees are screened by national security agencies.

The MCC’s Abbotsford-based B.C. headquarters has already helped 11 Mennonite churches apply to sponsor refugee families. Around half of those churches are located in Abbotsford. Dozens more churches have inquired about helping to sponsor refugees.

“We’ve had an unprecedented response,” Bremner said.

Jati Sidhu, the Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon Liberal MP, was not available for an interview but provided an email statement.

“The Paris attacks are a tragedy, and remind us that we must be vigilant against those who would use terror to threaten both our lives and freedom,” the response read. “That vigilance will be well in place when we offer our help to those refugees seeking to escape the very tyranny and violence perpetrated in France.”

Sidhu wrote that he couldn’t comment on how many refugees may be heading to the Abbotsford area. “We have no idea of the numbers B.C. may be expecting,” he wrote, adding that the government will be in touch with premiers and mayors.

“We have a team of ministers currently working on a plan to bring the refugees to Canada responsibly, effectively, and in a secure way,” Sidhu wrote.

However, Abbotsford Conservative MP Ed Fast says the government should re-examine its timeline objectives in resettling refugees here.

Fast told The News that Trudeau should “reconsider” timelines for bringing refugees to Canada.

“The Paris attacks are shocking and I believe it gives Canada pause to reflect on how fragile global security really is,” Fast said Monday.

“Canada is not immune to this insidious force.”

Fast said the government needs to make security of Canadians its priority, but he said refugee resettlement can still take place.

“It’s always a balance between compassion and our national security interests, but those are not mutually exclusive objectives,” Fast said. “Our party will support efforts to provide a safe home for the most vulnerable people in Syria and Iraq, but we’re also demanding that all refugees will be properly screened to ensure that Canada remains safe.”

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said Monday that while there are legitimate security concerns, many refugees are fleeing the same type of violence inflicted on Parisians last week.

Abbotsford Community Services is also gearing up to serve an expected influx of refugees settling in the Abbotsford area.

Donna Lo, the community organization’s manager of settlement services, says they’re taking an inventory of what they have and what they need.

Currently, one of the settlement workers speaks Arabic, and there is also a translator program the group can tap into.

A number of local churches, as well as some local residents, have offered spare space for temporary housing, And they’re planning a meeting on Nov. 30 with immigrants from areas near Syria and local service providers, to chart out the next steps.

“The majority of our clients are immigrants, not refugees,” said Lo. “We hope to be ready.”

With Premier Clark urging incoming refugees to consider areas beyond the dense, housing-starved Vancouver core, it’s likely some will choose Abbotsford, especially given the city’s strong network of charitable and community services for immigrants from groups like ACS and MCC.

Lo recently attended a Vancouver symposium on how to help Syrian refugees, from the Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies of B.C. She said cultural literacy will be a big component of their coming work.

“Every country is different, every culture is different,” she said.

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