A Haitian refugee takes shelter in a tent set up by the Canadian Armed Forces near Lacolle, Quebec, Aug. 10. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Comment: Instead of fear take time to listen to refugees

By  Norbert Piché
  • October 5, 2017
There’s a scent of fear wafting from recent headlines in Canada. Are we afraid of Haitian families?

Fear is a powerful emotion. Each one of us has known fear at one time or another. Fear of failing an exam, fear of losing one’s job, fear of the unknown, fear of losing somebody close, fear of dying. No one likes to live in fear. At the heart of every fear is a feeling of insecurity. Everybody prefers security.

Throughout the summer we saw daily arrivals of Haitians arriving at the Quebec border to claim refugee status on Canadian territory. They came here because they fear the American administration will send them back to Haiti in January, when the United States may cancel special measures giving Haitians temporary protected status.

The prospect of returning to Haiti hangs over these people like the sword of Damocles. Conditions there are extremely difficult. That is why these refugee claimants deserve that we at least listen to what they have to say.

Many of us know the famous story of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel, Les Misérables. When he was a young adult, Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread. That act, stealing, is reprehensible. The baker deserved to be paid. So Jean Valjean was condemned and it appeared justice was done.

But as we read the story, we discover that he stole that bread to feed his sister, who had recently been widowed, and her seven children. He was a pruner, a seasonal worker, and during the off-season he could not find work. His nieces and nephews were hungry; he therefore stole some bread. After getting to know the character and hearing his story and the reasons that led to the theft, we come to feel compassion for him.

Likewise, before passing judgment, should we not go and meet the stranger at our own door? Can’t we listen and discover a bit more about his life?

We would see that he is not all that different from us. He too wants to work. He too wants to feed his family. He too wants to educate himself. He too wants stability and a better life for his children. Unfortunately, all these things, which at Thanksgiving we give thanks for in Canada, are very nearly impossible at this time in Haiti.

Of course, we need to work towards creating the socio-political and economic conditions that would allow Haitians to live with dignity in their own country. But that will take years and will demand changes — changes in our politics regarding international aid as well as at the level of the political and institutional leadership in Haiti itself.

Until then, we can’t be surprised when Haitians look for a better life elsewhere. Can we really blame them?

How many people from Atlantic Canada have gone to find work in Alberta’s oil patch or Toronto’s factories over the past 50 years?  How many Irish immigrants came to Canada in the mid-19th century because they were starving?

We often hear that we cannot take on all of the world’s problems. Fair enough. However, a few thousand people is far from all of the world’s problems.

Some perspective is in order. Lebanon (a nation of four million people) has taken in one million Syrian refugees in the last few years. In 2001, close to 45,000 refugee claimants arrived in Canada; for 2017 (from January until June) we have a little more than 18,000. Everything is relative.

Maybe our fear of refugees is not so much because they are different from us — in their customs, culture, religion. Maybe we fear refugees because they remind us of our own human fragility. We ourselves could some day become homeless, exiled and in search of a refuge. Speak to Montrealers who were victims of flooding this past spring or residents of Fort MacMurray who lost their houses in the forest fires last year.

We all risk finding ourselves in a precarious situation. Do we expect to be greeted then with, “I’m sorry, but that is not my problem”?

Perhaps we should return to the foundation of our common humanity and to the essential links of solidarity that weave together a society.

(Piché is the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada.)

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