Other newcomers overlooked as eyes remain on Ukraine, advocates say
Some advocates working with refugees and newcomers in Ottawa say people have largely forgotten about those who have fled various countries and are resettling in the region, as headlines focus on helping Ukrainians fleeing war.
Earlier this month, since February, around 3,200 Ukrainians have landed in the nation’s capital as a network of settlement agencies and volunteer groups help them adjust to their new communities. Ottawans have also opened their homes to displaced families looking for temporary housing.
“When we talk about refugees who are not Ukrainians, we are in no way minimizing what Ukrainians are going through,” said Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613, an agency that helps newcomers settle.
“There are people from, you know, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, all over the world who have been through things very similar to what Ukrainians are going through. And they are sitting there waiting – waiting for someone ‘one helps them restart their lives.”
Taylor noted that there are approximately 27 million refugees worldwide according to UNHCR, yet around 100,000 are resettled every year. According to these data, the majority of refugees come from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she was blown away by people’s generosity to Ukrainians, but didn’t want the wider community to forget about others resettling in the nation’s capital and beyond.
“We’re part of that effort and we’re encouraging it. We’re just saying let’s make a bigger table,” she said, noting that there are people who come from different countries and aren’t part of Government-run “high-profile” programs to expedite immigration for certain groups.
“We just need Canadians to raise their hands and say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to help those people too. “”
Stories should have “equal weight”
Doreen Katto, refugee services program coordinator at Matthew House Ottawa, said she noticed that Canada’s immigration department was giving “special attention to certain groups.”
“We’ve seen this happen with the Afghans, and again with the Ukrainians,” Katto wrote in an email to CBC.
As a result, Katto said many other asylum seekers have had longer than usual wait times with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. One applicant waited over a year for his work permit, she said.
“Meanwhile, they are receiving welfare benefits which are far from sufficient,” Katto said. “I think every refugee or displaced person has a story, and all stories should have equal weight.”
Afghans still need help
Zahira Sarwar, director of the Ottawa-based Afghan Canadian Support Network (ACSN), said that as the war in Ukraine unfolded, she noticed that the number of Afghan families brought to Canada and Ottawa had slowed down.
We just notice that much less attention has been paid to helping the Afghans since the Ukraine crisis.– Zahira Sarwar, Afghan Canadian Support Network
Earlier this month, Canada had fulfilled a third of its pledge to protect the 40,000 Afghans who have fled the country since Kabul fell to the Taliban last summer.
The number of donations for Afghans in Ottawa has also “significantly decreased,” Sarwar said.
“Last fall, there were a lot of people who showed up either with physical gifts or [employment] offers,” she said.
“These kinds of offers have pretty much stopped coming in. So we’re noticing there’s been a lot less focus on helping Afghans since the Ukraine crisis.”
Sarwar said Afghan families have noticed the disparity in recent months.
For example, families noted that some teachers did not take the time to educate students about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan when their children joined the class, but did take the time to teach. students about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in recent months.
“It rubs us the wrong way, but … we know there’s a bit of underlying racism, which is also somewhat expected,” she said.
Sarwar wants Ottawans to remember that it doesn’t matter where people are from.
“[Newcomers] have been through something very tragic and they need help. They need kindness. They need people to open their hearts. We don’t need prejudice,” she said.
Donations, job offers still needed
The ACSN is always looking for volunteers to help, as well as more donations – from clothing to used household items, from gift cards to groceries.
Now that many families have moved into their own homes, she is asking business owners who are able to offer employment to contact the group.
“We are in contact with families who speak very good English. Many of them are professionals. They are lawyers, engineers… doctors, some are business owners themselves. But they looking for work,” she said.
“Please contact us. It can help families.”