Environmental issues used to trump humanitarian crises in my mind, but things have changed for me over the past month. Here's what I'm doing to help.
As a writer for TreeHugger, I spend my days thinking about environmental issues. In fact, so much of my mental energy goes toward worrying about climate change, plastic ocean waste, and toxic chemicals that I don’t give humanitarian crises nearly as much attention as I should.
In recent months, however, the stories coming out of Syria have affected me deeply. Four years of war have displaced nearly half of the country’s pre-war population and created 4 million refugees. These people are on the run. They have left their homes, children in tow, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Caring for the planet, I’ve realized, also means caring for its inhabitants. War is such a drain on the already limited resources of our Earth and its effects are so ravaging that it feels wrong to turn a blind eye any longer. But what could I do, living in a small, rural town in Ontario, Canada, that's three hours from Toronto and a world apart from the Middle East?
Everything changed for me during the first week of September. First, there was the heartbreaking photo of little Alan Kurdi, the boy who drowned with his mother and brother and washed up on a beach in Turkey. I, too, have a three-year-old boy.
Second, I received an email from an organization called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), rallying Canadian citizens to sponsor and help resettle Syrian refugee families within their communities. Suddenly I realized this was something I could do.
So I launched a campaign – to fundraise and to inform the community about what I want to do. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People have given so generously that we’ve raised enough money to resettle one very large family or two smaller families, and they could arrive within 1 to 4 months. (You can donate here.)
Canada is unique in having a private sponsorship program. As long as there are at least 5 participants, any group of Canadian citizens can join together to fundraise, sponsor, and actively resettle refugees in their own communities.
Refugees are matched with a community based on accessibility to resources (i.e. ESL classes, medical care, psychological counseling, local job market, etc.) and the amount of money that’s been raised to support the family for their first year in Canada. In order to expedite the process, the government will pay for six months if communities can cover the other six.
Clearly it’s an issue that resonates deeply with many. After so many months of hearing awful news stories, it’s very satisfying to give to a hopeful project and see local, tangible results. Plus, refugee resettlement is something Canadians have done before. In 1979, the nation opened its doors to 50,000 Vietnamese refugees who have become an integral part of our society today.
Do I fear terrorism? No, because refugees aren’t terrorists. They are the first victims of terror. What frightens me far more is the thought of an entire generation of children growing up in a war zone, without being given a fair chance at life.
Samer is a father who sent his 15-year-old son alone on a boat to Europe in search of safety. He said: “These children need education. They need peace so they can grow into peaceful people.”
Resettlement, I believe, is one of the best ways to offset the anger that can grow into violence down the road.
Canada has so much to offer these refugees – wide-open space, small and safe towns, universal medical care, good public education, clean water and air. We have much to gain as well – young people to revive an aging population, new entrepreneurial ventures, and cultural diversity.
I can’t wait for this family to arrive, and neither can the whole community. We will be waiting with open arms.