“One of the messages of Christmas is: Be not afraid.”
Eric Rajah is speaking to me about his personal experiences with Syrian refugees, and about how Canadians could respond as 25,000 arrive in Canada in the coming months. The first group arrived in Toronto this week.
Rajah, whose family immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka when he was a child, is an award-winning local humanitarian who has been involved with international aid and development for almost three decades.
As the director of the Lacombe-based organization A Better World, Rajah was in Kenya for projects earlier this year when he found himself with a one-week break.
He had friends working in Iraq with Syrian refugees. Their work was not related to A Better World’s.
“I wanted to help (his friends), and I had this week off and I said: ‘What better place to go for a holiday than Iraq?’” Of course he’s joking about the holiday part but he does describe the city of Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, as a “safe, interesting, modern, high-quality place.”
It also happens to have more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in camps. Northern Iraq has common borders with Turkey and Syria. Since the civil war in Syria began four years ago, more than 4.3 million people have fled to neighbouring countries, including Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Rajah said he wanted to get a first-hand look at the refugee situation, but he was mainly there to help his friends set up their office.
“It’s unbelievable, the generosity of these countries that have millions of Syrian refugees. We’re talking about 25,000 people (coming to Canada) as being generous, but these people are putting up with 10 camps, 20,000 people or more each.”
On his first day there, Rajah tells the story of trying to buy some fruit from a small food market vendor across the street from his hotel.
He tried to pay the man but he wouldn’t take Rajah’s money. “He put the food in the bag, gave it to me and said goodbye.”
“I thought what in the world is going on. Maybe I offended him. Maybe I didn’t give him enough money.”
Rajah went back in the evening with a translator. As it it turned out, the man was a Syrian refugee who had come to Iraq with nothing. Owners of a larger store next door gave him some space for the fruit market and money to get started.
The refugee doesn’t like to charge foreigners because he knows that every one that comes, comes to help, said Rajah. They were eventually able to convince him to take the money.
“This is the real human side of working with people. They’re not terrorists. They’re desperate. They’re trying to leave (Syria).
“My point is when you see these people face to face, and see the desperation, how grateful they are. We need to understand that terrorists are usually not in camps.
“These are people who ISIS said: ‘Get out or else you are going to be killed. Give us your cars, give us your houses, give us your money and get out.’”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a brutal, militant group devoted to establishing an independent Islamic state.
As Syrian refugees arrive in Canada, Rajah is hoping people choose “engagement over isolation.”
“Welcome them, engage them, then you’ll understand them. … Refugees are not terrorists and refugees are not poor uneducated people.
“They lived normal lives and were very educated. … I was dealing with engineers and medical people in the camp.”
“This is a perfect time to understand cultures and the desperation that happens around the world. … And remember that these other countries who are neighbouring are taking millions of people,” Rajah said.
He believes the solution to the Syria refugee crisis is peace in Syria.
If the problems there aren’t solved, then people will continue to leave the country out of desperation.
“If they don’t have water, education and opportunity, and peace, they will come looking elsewhere.”
Canada’s efforts to accept Syrian refugees is a good start, Rajah said. “I see this as a small solution. I don’t see this as a permanent or a long-term solution.”
“We should be moving toward permanent solutions for them so we can help them where they are nearest. We have to be part of the world community.”
Canadians are nervous about the Syrian refugees coming because there are fewer jobs due to the economy, Rajah said.
“Always there’s this human fear — Is there enough to go around? There is enough for everybody in this world, it’s how we want to allocate the resources.”
“These people will take any job they can because they are coming here for peace, not for the best jobs that are here.”
“Their children will be the future. We need people. We need the economy to grow and people are the ones who make it grow.”
Rajah was in the camps every day. He took pictures of things like big warehouses with tents inside, with five to six people living in each tent. But one of the things that bothered him the most was that the children are not in school.
“So right there they’re already behind in their lives. I asked one guy, he was about 13, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ You know what his answer was? He said ‘I want to live.’”
“We see all this terrorism on TV. These kids are seeing it in real life. They have seen their brothers and sisters get killed, uncles’ and aunts’ heads chopped off. You can imagine the trauma that they are already facing.”
“There’s no easy answer. My main message to people is they’re here now, don’t incite hatred and things like that. They’re already hated. … They shouldn’t come to a new country and feel nobody wants them.
“That’s my main worry, when they come here, that they feel accepted, appreciated and wanted. They’re not wanted anywhere.
“We need to give them hope, interact with them, and individually help them.”