Canadians are sad but never really cared

These are Western Values

I know a Syrian with a lot of energy who wants to come to Canada, to work hard, to study much, to build a life. He has wanted this ever since I met him and some time has passed since then. Some months ago he saw a program on Al-Jazeera that profiled an engineer who had come to Canada from Syria but could not find work.

Of it he asked me simply, “Is it right?” Tough question.

“I think these days governments pay for such coverage.”

I didn’t say that but wish I had. A friend, experienced in this crisis, pretty high up in an European NGO’s office, offered that cynical take when relayed the possibly misaligned question put to me. But it is not far from known truths — see Syrians fear the other through an absence of exposure (just as parochialists in the west fear them). Surrendering to an anecdote is to surrender entirely — and media takes advantage of this in all directions.

The other day in a central neighbourhood of Oslo I walked by a noxious sign, one in Norwegian and in Arabic, advertising to refugees and asylum claimants that the Norwegian government would pay them some considerable sum to repatriate.

Denmark takes out ads in Lebanon clarifying their country’s rules — that you can’t bring family members for the first year, that you can’t gain permanent residency in less than five years, that you can’t be accepted in Danish society without fulfilling language requirements — but also warning that benefits you might have heard of others receiving are going to be reduced.

There is, in fairness, a massive amount of disinformation floating through the Syrian diaspora. Conspicuous fact spreading has value. Too many were told stories about a land of milk and honey, too many decided their destination en route impromptu, Finland, no Sweden, no Germany — on a happenstance confidence. But the intention behind such advertising is also easily inferred.

And then there is this from Loretta Napoleoni’s recent Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugees into a Multibillion Dollar Business [a publisher’s title if there ever was one]:

Libya has steadily profited from the trafficking of migrants. In 2003 the Berlusconi government began secret negotiations with the Libyan dictator Gaddafi to reach an agreement about “containing” and “blocking” migrants traveling through Libya. That same year, Italy sent “supplies” to help Tripoli deal with migrants: boats, SUVs, trucks, diving equipment, twelve thousand blankets, one thousand body bags, and a large number of containers, which Gaddafi used to transport African migrants from the coast back inland to detention camps in the Libyan desert.”

“When we got to Misrata there was a container waiting for us,” said one migrant. “It was very long. They forced us inside it. We did not even know what it was. While we were there they brought another hundred people from the prison. They came from different countries many were from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea. I was supposed to reach Italy and instead from Misurata, trapped inside the container, I went back south, to Kufra.” At the edge of the Libyan Sahara, near the border with Sudan, Kufra was Gaddafi’s biggest detention center. Sooner or later, all migrants ended up in Kufra.

“They locked me in a container with another 110 people. During the journey half of them passed out. When we reached the destination the prison was full and could not take us. We were in Ajdabia. So they put us back into the container, without giving us any water and drove us to Kufra. People started to die next to me,’ remembers another migrant.

To assist Gaddafi “in the migration flows,” Italy also provided cash. The financial law of December 2004 granted Libya 25 million for 2005 and 20 million for 2006.

“It was a shocking deal, which legalized Libya’s twenty-first-century gulag system,” Napoleoni concludes a bit further on. I have omitted a considerable breadth of horrifying passages about those raped while looping perpetually inside human trafficking.

So, it’s tough to make it in Canada, Norway will pay you to leave, Denmark doesn’t want you to come, and in the very recent past Italy was bankrolling a system of human enslavement in lieu of accepting the desperate. So what? Are we coming to the titular point?

Sadness and caring

I do not want to get into a long thing about practical and philosophical ethics. And I don’t subscribe to the view that someone’s externalised intended actions are the whole and real representation of their internal ethics. But I know scores of guilty whites who seem to believe how you present yourself, especially in the words you choose and the words you refuse, and how you arrange matters in your mind plays some role in human solidarity.

If they actually cared about Syrians, Canadians would have done something about the crisis before the photo of Alan Kurdi was held up to their faces. And I don’t think they cared after seeing the photo either. What I think happened is they got sad. Understandable reaction to a dead child face down on a beach.

But the solution to this sadness was not sustained solidarity — it was happiness.


And what is Canadian happiness if not taking a smiling selfie with a woman in a hijab?

The post-selfie period 

I saw this article yesterday about a program I never even knew about. I wonder how well the program could have been advertised in the first place if it only brought 127 people to Canada, if it outsourced costs and responsibilities to the Catholic Crosscultural Services (actually the article, poorly written, wasn’t clear about that relationship, exactly, but a spokesperson for CCS defended their failed efforts).

We’re going to walk along a tangent for a little. Because the writer of this article, Michelle Zilio, chose to juxtapose the failure of the Family Links Initiative to get enough Canadians to sponsor those registered with the private sponsorship program whose sponsors were and are waiting anxiously for their refugees to arrive to Canada. Because those they sponsored were late. This isn’t a dichotomy. And I quote:

The low sponsor numbers for Family Links is in stark contrast to the overwhelming interest from private sponsors in Canada, who have expressed frustration with the lengthy waits for the arrival of the Syrian families they sponsored.

Those who sponsored refugees worried about them when they didn’t turn up. Imagine that! But that actually says nothing about how many Canadians were willing to sponsor Syrians, does it?

It depresses me in some vague way that a writer at the Globe can’t arrange concepts in their copy as deadline approaches. And that it took until January 12th for this article to come out about something the government announced over the holidays — a typical hiding tactic — and the hiding worked because I didn’t read about it until yesterday. And it is my imagination that they probably hid the program from the start. From the article:

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who is highly involved in Toronto’s refugee sponsorship community, said he has never heard of Family Links, which he found disappointing given the number sponsorship groups wanting to resettle a Syrian family.

I think the juxtaposition in the article also has this other affect, that I see popping up everywhere, and it is the perpetuation of the notion that Canadians are and have been munificent. I very much doubt that they have been.

I worry about pieces like this. If the point is to humanise refugees since they are people just like you and me, I am all for that since this is still something that needs doing. But there is a more insidious danger which plays to the more reactionary and economically illiterate portions of the electorate (so, nearly the entire electorate) and that is to sell the idea that Canada (a) has done enough and/or (b) has shouldered a burden.

There is no proof that any of the refugees taken on are economically burdensome. Firstly there are the groups of old monied Canadians who have sponsored refugees privately. There is no proof that these sponsors are not making a great sale, that their otherwise disposable income is buying them warm fuzzy feelings, the self-regard and the regard of others that comes with anti-anonymous charity. A sponsored family of refugees is about as conspicuous a consumption as there can be. You can get your purchase profiled in the Toronto Star and trot those refugees to dinner parties. What is not happening in such cases is sacrifice or burden on the part of the Canadian taxpayer.

Then there are perhaps more wholesome groups, church groups and so forth, who are also not burdened whatsoever. Here:


To get back to the point, Canadians found a solution to this Alan Kurdi sadness: Justin Trudeau and the better-than-the-rest-of-the-world refugee program. Every time I hear a politician say, or read an article which states, that Canada’s refugee resettlement program is the best in the world, I think ‘low bar.’ You should too.

What kind of standard is this? Not to take in people according to capacity or capability, not to help people according to need, but to merely meet an ephemeral and emotive demand and to be better than scandalous xenophobes.

Intentional Opacity and Hosam Nafish 

Here is what I think happened with this previously-unknown-now-cancelled Syrian Links Initiative. By way of analogy.

There are a number of cash assistance programs in Turkey, where families receive stipends from budgets furnished by western donors. One distributor wanted to sign people up in the town of Kilis, which is right on the border with Syria, about 50km south of Gaziantep. So they just advertised their office’s location and told people to come and sign up.

Then there was “a near riot” which was described to me by another source as “a riot.” Front windows were broken, beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries were stressed, the distributor’s employees were overwhelmed and the Turkish locality was none too pleased with the insecurity. In the end, the distributor realised it had been a bad idea, and instead began canvassing neighbourhoods with field officers to sign families up.

It is under a similar “if they knew where we were, everyone would line up outside” premise which the Canadian government and its partners in Turkey have operated since the beginning of the refugee program. Through some combination of intentional opacity and a lack of resources most Syrians only hear about Canada in whispers, on social media, traditional media, and of course, through predatory businesses like Go Canada. The refugees seldom actually interact with the Canadian government’s partners on the ground and never with the Canadian government itself.

Now, who do you think this kind of concerted opacity benefits, in terms of a selection pressure towards actually stepping off a plane in Pearson airport? The most affluent refugees of course. The most educated. The most internet and communication savvy. The most socially well-connected.

These are the people who typically find their way to Canada, while the Hosam Nafish’s of the crisis do not know where to start because their ignorance is by design. Of course in the case of the Syrian Links Initiative there were probably other factors at work. Likely the CSS never felt urgency or empathy for those hoping to come to Canada because they simply don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. This happens with NGOs in Turkey; it happens in Canada.

As for Hosam Nafish, I tried to get his story published last year as part of a larger piece on Syrians hoping to come to Canada. Here is an excerpt. I hope you make it to the end.


“He lost his older brother –” warns Walid

— “Tell him to use my real name!” interrupts Hosam (his real name), bug-eyes bugging.

“Maybe that way someone will read my story and bring me to Canada.”


Reluctant to begin, he insists on nargile — “I need to be high” — but once smoking inside Hadrian’s Gate, at one of Antalya’s tourist trap, water-pipe cafes, he refuses to stop before finishing.

The sun sets, dessert is ordered, and ash overspills the tray. Eventually another entire meal arrives. And by the time Hosam’s retelling is done, “This is just a summary I am giving you” (another ubiquitous Syrian refrain), he and his friends rush to catch their last Sunday bus home, up to the hills northwest of the city.

“I went to the army 1st of June, 2010. We didn’t have any internet or social media so we had no knowledge of the reality — they were saying there were terrorists outside and we should kill these terrorists.”

“At one of the demonstrations I saw them hitting the demonstrators, they were carrying flowers and they hit them with [the butts of] their guns. In that moment I wanted to escape, but my family said ‘Don’t, they’ll kill you and us too.’ I returned with the army and they didn’t give me one day off for a whole year.”

He takes long drags and calls impatiently for new coals.

Finally his day off came. Hama was controlled by the regime at that time. Nonetheless, in only the privacy of his mind, he decided to defect. At the second checkpoint that day he was stopped and accused of carrying fake army papers. An officer took his cell phone and some petty cash, leaving Hosam with only his SIM card. They were military police, but denied his urging to call his commanding officer. He spent the night in jail. The next morning an officer agreed his papers were genuine and that he had been well within his rights to move within the city on his day off.

“And I said ‘Give me permission, because I don’t want to get stopped again.’ And he said ‘Okay, we will escort you and be official.’”

They took Hosam in handcuffs, blindfolded, to a new prison. As they led him, “someone smacked me in the balls, from underneath. And I was walking crooked and you should just keep walking and not react, you should go on. And the last one has whips. He is hitting me on the back. It is like a program, each person has something for you.”

“It’s good they hit you, you were on the regime’s side!” Walid interrupts.

“They took off all of my clothes so we are just in our underwear. Then they asked me to strip off my underwear and squat. And I thought they were going to fuck me.”

After a cavity search, the nineteen-year-old was led blindfolded down stairs, asked if he attended demonstrations, and beaten. Once underground, he found himself in a cold room with a pool of blood. Cries of men being tortured surrounded him.

“They were taking the people one by one. They were sending them back in the chair because they couldn’t walk. It was so cold, there was no blankets. It is not organised the prison, the shit water from the toilet is everywhere on the floor and there are cockroaches. And after three hours they asked me to come and see them, but I didn’t have a chance to explain myself or my story.”

Now when he needs to take the edge off, Hosam drinks vodka. Walid and those in his social circle, observant and therefore teetotallers, don’t judge him for it. A cheap litre can be found ten minutes walk from their middle-of-nowhere apartment building.

Hosam didn’t know it at the time, but defection from the Syrian Arab Army was an expanding phenomenon. The suspicions of the security services might have only been probabilistic (in other words, he may not have given himself away). Since that period, academic Samer Abboud explains, “low military morale, rampant defections, loyalist discord about rising deaths, disintegration within its ranks, and mistrust among SAA soldiers have all forced the regime to turn to civilian or non-Syrian violent actors.”

“They open my file — same as last time — and they said, ‘Why did they bring you here? You have no problem.’ I said ‘Sir, I am doing my military service.’ They hit me a lot.”

Things continued that way, first assurances it was all a mistake, then the torture. He saw another inmate return from interrogation shot through the forearm. After nearly a week they handcuffed and blindfolded him again, formally accused him of desertion, and took him to al-Kuboun in Damascus.


Hosam pauses at times for the thousand mile stare. In his relaxed state, sights of Antalya in the background, he’ll borrow the most stylish pair of sunglasses available and pose for a new profile picture. His aspirations were also unserious. He doesn’t eat at KFC now only because he can’t afford it. And he doesn’t meet young women at the mall only because he’s two hours away by public transport. Thoughts of suicide are frequent. 

“In this jail you should just keep your mouth closed — because there is a small window and they are listening always. And they feed you just half a loaf of bread — they are just feeding you to stay alive.”

“They put eight people behind the door with hands up and said, ‘We will mention a name, one by one. And the one we do not mention, he should not make a whisper.’”

He stood still for six and a half hours, “we can’t even move a finger,” his back to guards “watching in shifts.”

Two days later, Hosam was transferred to military jail. “There are seventeen branches and they call it the fifth branch.”

There, high ranking officers took things out on him. “I lost everything in my life. This Colonel said ‘You wanted to escape from the army and join the terrorists,’ and I said ‘No sir, this is not the reality. I love my country.’”

“They put me in the car tire, chest to knees. They break your fingers. And they started to hit me, asking me to count. They make a joke with you — if you say it is eleven, but it is nine, then they start again from the zero. They took me out of the tire after 150 strikes and the Colonel asked me again, ‘Did you want to escape from the army?’ I fainted a few times and they were still hitting me, so I woke up. They don’t care if you are conscious or unconscious.”

Hosam maintained his innocence throughout. He was sent back to his unit on public transportation with a two guard escort. They had shaved his head, another humiliation.

“When they took me to the army, my Colonel and unit didn’t take care of me. They said ‘You are a motherfucker and your sister is a bitch. We are going to fuck your mother and sister. You are a traitor and a liar.’ So they started to play with my nerves. They said, ‘We are going to shoot you just directly now.’”

His unit beat him for three hours, kicking his face, boots on, lighting his beard on fire. Finally he was allowed to rejoin them in a more or less normal capacity. Both his military and his civilian identification had been confiscated.

“Now after all of these things I had a big experience about what they are doing with the people, which I didn’t have before. For the next four months I just worked to go because I realised how terrorist they are. And if they saw a regular person just with a board at the protest they would shoot them. I thought I cannot do this, I cannot kill normal people. In that time, I know if they are going to send us to kill people, I was overthinking, what am I going to do? They are standing behind us and seeing — if I don’t shoot, they are going to kill me. I am always thinking what am I going to do?”

At night, the guys play FIFA on an old Playstation 2, sitting across three beds in the common room. There is an apartment-wide rivalry between Real Madrid and Manchester United. While others are matched up, Hosam prepares homestyle meals.

“He’s a good cook,” vouches Walid. They sit on the floor around the result, scooping chicken out of red sauce with bread, pouring sips of flat pepsi from a plastic two litre bottle.

“I was dying in these four months. They were watching my every movement. I was careful what I was saying every day.”

Hosam surrendered 30,000 Syrian pounds of wages for one day of leave. He went home resolved to defection — “I wanted to be just, they wanted me to be unjust.”

“But I had the same situation, I was in a big jail. They controlled the city.”

He stayed with his parents — his family too poor to consider bribing their way out, fearing their son’s discovery would be the death of them all. They came for him shortly, but the first time he was forewarned. Squeezed behind pipes in the water closet, he held his breath.

Fifteen days later, there was no ahead of time. He was out on the balcony and jumped. And scrambled, balcony to balcony, running through alleys, not stopping until he reached the next district.

He had nothing on him and every road out of the city was check-pointed by the regime. Hosam scavenged discarded bread and walked out of Hama, not on a road, but into the desert.

“I was eating mouldy bread while bombs were dropping. In that area the plane and every kind of gun was attacking.”

Soon hungry and dizzy, he drank “the ground water — still, dirty water.” Shortly he was vomiting, “it was poisoned.”

“There was no doctor, no medicine. I knew my life was nearing an end.”

He had had no choice, he told himself. “No problem. I am not going to kill anyone.”

He accepted that he was going to starve.


[In the original article you’re left hanging for a few pages –]


Six weeks after clearing Hama’s city limits on foot, Hosam made it to a camp near the Turkish border in northwest Idlib. Still penurious, he made his calls from others’ mobiles. The first time he crossed the border, he was caught and turned around by Turkish authorities. On his second attempt, three months later, he succeeded.

After a year scraping by in Istanbul, he heard the outskirts of Antalya had a lower cost of living. The older Walid, also from Hama, to whom he had no previous direct connection, welcomed him when he arrived. 

Hosam worked construction through the spring into the summer until injuring his back. After being laid up a couple weeks it took another six to find a new job. His parents remain in Hama. His plastic phone has no credit.

“And I have found the life here worse and worse. I work ten days and then am not working one month. I don’t have any proof of who I am. Now you can say it is my friends who are supporting me.” He moves apartments often, from bed to bed, outskirt to outskirt.

One Saturday, just before midnight, a gregarious character is going to drive his ramshackle bread van into the city of Antalya to liaise with, argue with, and ultimately exchange aspersions with, two bakers, fellow Syrians, over the wholesale price per loaf. But Hosam won’t ride along with his friends because he is afraid. What will happen if Turkish police ask him for identification?

Calling for human solidarity is a typical way Syrians conclude long testimonies.

“To the many concerned Canadian people, I am here, I don’t want to steal any money. No one has ever mentioned that I did something wrong. And I hope some of the Canadians will help me because of this. Me and my family will respect you or any other person who helps us. You are a good people and I am a human being like you.”


He is not on any UN or IOM list, nor in any Turkish or Canadian database. No papers have arrived to any Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) on his behalf, no church group nervously awaits his news. There is no internet where he sleeps, or at his new job, the overnight shift at a stone factory. But when Hosam has a chance, he punches Arabic into google translate. I hope for a new big brother, he writes.



This is winter in the central #Mediterranean. For every 11 people who have made it to #Italy so far this year, at least 1 person has died.

— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) January 23, 2017


Back to short posts tomorrow.