Carl Hetu

Canadian aid to refugees expected to top $1 billion

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  • December 3, 2015

Another $100 million in federal government aid to Syrian refugees fleeing their nation’s civil war brings Canada’s spending on the refugee crisis so far to nearly $1 billion. But a dollar-for-dollar matching fund open until Dec. 31 with approved charities is certain to push Canada’s aid to the region well past that mark.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace is among the organizations eligible for matching funds. Its programs and partner organizations in the region deliver such basic necessities as food and warm clothing but also are involved in education, trauma counselling and community organizing. Development and Peace has so far raised $1.1 million to be matched by the government. Between January 2013 and Sept. 12 this year, when Ottawa announced its Syria Emergency Relief Fund, Development and Peace had raised another $3 million outside the matching fund program.

Aid to the vast majority of Syria’s 4.2 million refugees in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, as well as the country’s 6.5 million internally displaced people, is the right thing to do, said Development and Peace executive director David Leduc.

“Absolutely it’s important and I would say in some ways more important (than resettling refugees in Canada),” Leduc told The Catholic Register.

Money spent in the region helping refugees survive the next winter, keep their kids in school and peacefully co-exist in their new situation will help far more families and individuals than resettling refugees in Canada, he said.

As a former program director for Oxfam-Quebec working in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, Leduc is familiar with the challenges of refugee life in the region.

“It can be a cruel winter... In Lebanon in particular, where the refugee camps are located in the north in the Bekkah region, winters are very cold, with a lot of snow and ice. When you’re spending your time in an unheated tent, it’s very difficult.”

The Canadian money will go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which manages and co-ordinates hundreds of programs working with thousands of non-governmental and governmental organizations in the region. Development and Peace partners are likely to benefit from the UNHCR funding.

The Jesuit Refugee Service also works closely with UNHCR. There’s a clear need to fill in for shortfalls in funding to organizations on the ground in the region, said JRS Canada country director Norbert Piché.

“That’s where the problems are the most severe,” said Piché. “They’re just not able to function properly with the amount of funding they get from different countries or the UN or whoever is financing them.”

The needs both in official refugee camps and for refugees living independently come down to basic survival, said Piché.

“We hear stories of parents not getting enough to eat themselves, because they want to make sure their kids get enough to eat,” he said. “When you hear those stories you say, ‘There’s a problem there that needs to be resolved.’ ”

Funded in Canada through Canadian Jesuits International, the JRS concentrates on education in refugee camps, but also delivers forms of basic aid from food to clothing. Education is one way to keep problems from getting worse, Piché said.

“It helps to stem those kinds of problems that occur a generation later. We see those problems when people don’t have the education.”

While the UN system is probably the most efficient way to deliver aid to the region, Catholic Near East Welfare Association Canada executive director Carl Hetu worries that governments are mistaken or naive in trying to make their humanitarian funding religiously neutral.

“Ignoring religious minorities as a criteria is showing a serious lack of understanding of the reality in the Middle East,” Hetu said. “All are equally victims of war, but in this case minorities such as Christians are also victims of persecution because of their faith. In northern Syria there are hundreds of Christians held prisoner by ISIS since last winter because they are Christian.”

Even a billion dollars from Canada isn’t going to solve the Syrian crisis, said Hetu.

“Peace is needed to stop this crisis,” he said.

Peacebuilding and community engagement is precisely where Development and Peace is concentrating much of its effort, said Leduc.

“We’re not there for the first week or the first month or the first year,” he said. “We are there to ensure local citizens are active players in the decision-making in terms of disaster relief and reconstruction and long-term rebuilding of their community.”

Unlike many agencies, both CNEWA-Canada and Development and Peace aren’t limited to the refugee camps outside of Syria. Their contacts and partners include churches and agencies inside the country, where the UNHCR has identified 13.5 million people in need of aid. Well over 250,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have been killed and more than one million wounded since the civil war broke out in 2011.

“It’s taken some years really for people to feel how severe and how horrific it is for the ordinary family that is living there,” said Leduc.

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