“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt during his presidential inaugural address in 1933.
Though spoken during the Great Depression in reference to the economic crisis, his words are strikingly applicable as we seek to respond to a refugee crisis that is often juxtaposed with terrorist acts committed abroad.
The fear that is created by the tragic events in Paris is real. It is what we choose to do with that feeling that matters. We can hide, perhaps behind a wall, or we can remember who we are, what we stand for, and act with the courage of our convictions.
Subsequent to the attacks in Paris, 31 state governors in the United States — ignoring the fact that they have no legal authority in what is essentially a federal jurisdiction — have openly stated their opposition to accepting Syrian refugees. Also ignoring the fact that none of those who committed the atrocities in Paris were refugees (rather passport-carrying French or Belgium citizens), those governors seek only to seed intolerance and distrust with their disturbingly popular anti-refugee rhetoric.
By contrast, the Annex community has taken up the challenge of sponsoring Syrian refugees with particular, and heartening, vigor. One cannot get through the day without encountering a church group, community group, neighbourhood association, or neighbour simply selling cookies on Bloor Street for the cause.
Canada has a long and proud history of accepting refugees that dates to the late eighteenth century, when Black Americans fled slavery in the United States, and Scots Highlanders escaped a century-long destruction of Gaelic culture. And in the two centuries since then, many people have sought refuge on our shores. Those people — Poles, Italians, Czechs, Jews, Arabs, Tibetans, Chileans, Khmer Cambodians, 7,000 Ismaili Muslims from Uganda in 1972, 60,000 Vietnamese in 1980, to name but a few — make a long and rich list of those who are now helping to grow our country.
One particular wave of refugees, the 37,000 Hungarians who in 1956 sought refuge in Canada from Soviet tyranny, probably provides the best analogue for the Syrian refugees. The ’56-ers, who included mining magnate Peter Munk, publisher Anna Porter, financier Andy Sarlos, and journalist George Jonas, had a positive impact on our nation after they arrived. We even have local examples of their influence: Bloor Street west of Spadina Avenue was once fondly dubbed the “Goulash Archipelago”, with much of the real estate owned by “Annie-of-the-Annex” Anne Racz.
The Syrians, like the Hungarians, are highly educated, and come from a sophisticated culture with a long history that in many ways is a cradle of our civilization. Imagine what — with a little support — they could achieve here.
At this moment, we have an opportunity to make sure that we do not revisit the dark chapters of our history. In May of 1939, when an oppressive anti-Semitism had taken hold in Canada and permeated the senior levels of the government, the nation refused to welcome 907 German Jews fleeing Nazi oppression. Learning that “None is too many”, the refugees were forced back to Europe, where 254 perished in the Holocaust. It was a closed, xenophobic moment in our history that today provides us with an ethical yardstick.
During his second inaugural address in 1935, Roosevelt said that “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.”
We should not forget our history and how it defines us, but embrace the opportunity to allow another positive defining chapter to be written.