During the past few weeks, as the Syrian refugee crisis has grown, acquaintances who know that I’m an outreach worker among people struggling with homelessness and other facets of marginalization have been asking me this question:
“Why are we Canadians spending our resources to feed and house refugees from the Middle East when we have homeless and disenfranchised people already living around us—shouldn’t they come first?”
[Leaving aside an exploration of where this passion to care for our homeless was hiding prior to the current crisis, I focus on the either/or question.]
“I have hope,” I tell them. I have hope that there will be a shift in the way we think about “the other”. I have hope that we’ll land on an understanding that makes us act as if we’re one people sharing one earth.
That said, I witness the daily struggles of people trying to meet their basic need for food and shelter, having fallen through the cracks of a helping system that is inadequate and inconsistent. Combined with a less than 1% vacancy rate for rentals (most of which are not affordable to a person on social assistance or disability pension) and 5-year waiting lists for rent-geared-to-income apartments, a growing number of people are bunking it in their car, sleeping on a friend’s floor, and in some cases, living outdoors.
As an outreach worker, I encounter the most vulnerable population—those who are refugees from early trauma, abuse and neglect, often suffering the effects of their coping strategies, often attempting to become invisible to avoid the stigma of a society that blames them for their current situation. These “domestic refugees” are of no less value than those fleeing violence and trauma in another context.
As they should, urgency and timing are dictating prompt humanitarian action on behalf of Syrian refugees who are risking all, leaving every sense of home behind them to escape imminent danger. And there are reasons to believe they are escaping a situation that was aided in its development by North American and European actions--but our shared common humanity should guide our actions, not guilt or perceived responsibility.
The task at hand is not a small one, and our definition of shared human experience will be tested in coming weeks. We need new, practical solutions for housing that is affordable and safe. We need political leadership—at all levels—along with grassroots support to values and prioritize the most vulnerable among us. That’s the test.
My experience, working at the grassroots level, gives me great hope that we can do this—that we can extend our roof of welcome and our table of generosity to include both kinds of refugees. I’ve seen many examples of our community responding to human needs—both through short-term charitable acts and longer-term structural change.
My hope is that as we act with a new awareness and sensitivity toward “the other”, our domestic refugees will be caught up in the wave of solutions being discovered as we welcome Syrian refugees.
David Sheffield, Green Wood Coalition