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Above The Border, Canadians Don't Waver In Welcome For Refugees

A refugee family from Syria visits a new refugees facility under construction in Vancouver, Canada, on Sept. 10. The country is expected to welcome some 25,000 Syrians by the end of the year.
Liang Sen
A refugee family from Syria visits a new refugees facility under construction in Vancouver, Canada, on Sept. 10. The country is expected to welcome some 25,000 Syrians by the end of the year.

Mohammed Alsaleh came to Canada a year ago, after being tortured in Syria by the regime of President Bashar Assad. Now, the 26-year-old sits in a Starbucks in Vancouver, dressed in blue scrubs from his nurse's aid training, and he recalls the shock of arriving in this peaceful, rainy city.

"I was saying to myself, 'What did I do?' " he laughs.

The newly elected liberal government in Ottawa is pushing ahead with a plan to let 25,000 Syrians into Canada by the end of the year — a stark contrast to the U.S., where the past week has seen Congress and governors, mostly Republicans, opposing the arrival of Syrian refugees.

When he first arrived in Canada, though, Alsaleh didn't know a single person in the whole country. He wondered how he'd survive, being so alone.

"But that changed the next day," Alsaleh says. "The Canadians, I can tell you, they are the most friendly population in the whole earth."

Canada is generous with its refugees, offering free medical care, subsidized language classes and stipends. When they arrive in Vancouver, the first stop for refugees after the airport is at the "Welcome Center" — a lobby in a special hostel for refugees downtown.

Pretty soon, this room is going to get a lot more crowded.

"We're talking about 25,000 refugees coming to Canada in a matter of weeks," says Chris Friesen, of the Immigration Services Society of British Columbia. His organization alone will go from processing 900 refugees a year to maybe 3,000 — just in the next six weeks. He's scrambling to find places for all of these people to sleep.

"We've developed — you know, it's sort of like the Airbnb on steroids," he says. "We're doing a housing registry for refugees."

And offers of spare rooms and basement suites are streaming in. A real estate developer has offered free apartments.

"You know, I've got a lot of self-imposed bruises, because I'm pinching myself here. After 10 years of negative discourse on refugees, suddenly they've become sexy — everybody wants a refugee!"

What's the difference between Canada and the U.S., where President Obama's controversial plan to welcome 10,000 Syrians is still just a fraction of the numbers arriving in Europe? Well, one big factor is that Canada already had its election — before the attacks in Paris.

During the fall campaign, refugees got a lot of sympathy, partly because of that famous photo of the little boy who drowned on his way to Europe. It turned out his family had applied to come to Canada — and had been denied. The boy's aunt lived in British Columbia, and Canadians saw her on TV, weeping over his death.

The Liberal Party's Justin Trudeau promised to bring in 25,000 Syrians, and now that he's prime minister, he says he's sticking with that plan — though his government hasn't yet released the details of how it will work, and there are some rumblings that the deadline will slip. The Paris attacks have had an effect on the public: One newspaper poll this week showed that a majority of Canadians now oppose fast-track resettlement.

Brad Wall, the premier of Saskatchewan, raised the possibility that rushing things could let a terrorist slip in.

"Usually, one miss out of 25,000 would be acceptable for government or for business, or for almost any organization," Wall said on CTV earlier this month. "I don't know that it is in this instance."

Still, this is Canada. Unlike some of the governors south of the border, Wall said he had no intention of trying to block the refugees from his province.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.