(CLICK HERE to read Part One.) When I first arrived in Armenia back in 2012, the Syrian civil war was in full force.
The legal centre I had been interning with got a contract from the UNHCR to handle refugees trying to obtain asylum status. The experience was eye opening for a Canadian like me.
When the refugees I interviewed found out I was Canadian, they immediately thought I must be buddies with the Prime Minister, and that somehow I could "put the good word in" on their behalf.
There was a Kurdish woman named Fatima, who had been a member of the PKK, the militant group fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Eastern Turkey. Turkey has labeled them a terrorist group. Fatima had been raped at a young age, and as a result, no one in her village would marry her or have anything to do with her. Islam teaches that when it comes to rape, the victim is equally at fault. The only future or prospect any woman like her could have in that destitute part of Turkey was to join the Kurdish militia. Despite many Western media outlets continually trying to label the PKK as "progressive" just because women are in its ranks, I can assure you from the stories I heard first hand, these women are more like sex workers than soldiers.
Fatima had fled first to Iraq, then to Georgia, where she had been kidnapped again by the PKK. She escaped and finally wound up in Armenia. I remember meeting this women for the first time in the office, and listening to her translators telling me about the combat she’d seen and showing me the shrapnel charred into her right leg. Joining the PKK requires you to literally burn all your ties to Turkey, such as your passport. With no passport, Fatima had no identity in the eyes of any state or NGO. She is no one. I came to see the value in my own Canadian passport even more.
Then there were those I met who were fleeing Iran. Back in Canada, I was suspicious of some of the news being reported about Iran. Was it really that bad? Yet when I was conducting these interviews, I was appalled at the fanaticism they were escaping. I interviewed one young couple who owned a printing shop in Tehran near the university. When the Green movement was in full force, many of the university’s students began printing banners and posters criticizing the Islamic government. But after the Green movement was violently suppressed, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard came after their printing shop, seizing their bank account, cottage, and all their other assets, whilst repeatedly bringing them in for questioning and harassment. This young couple fled to Armenia with nothing but the shirts on their backs.
There were also numerous individuals from Iran claiming they had converted to Christianity. In Iran, the penalty for apostasy is death. I doubt many of these people had sincerely converted, but they knew the UN had to provide them asylum status if going back to their country of origin meant certain death. These people's devotion to Islam doesn't prevent them from lying about being Christian just so they can get into Canada, or from removing their niqab if they were to be asked to during the citizenship ceremony. Becoming a Canadian citizen is their primary goal.
Justin Trudeau promised to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada before Christmas. An ambitious claim, easy for a candidate starting off at third place to make, but perhaps harder to fulfill once becoming prime minster.
But along with that promise, there was another crucial issue in this election, one that sends a bad message to the poor folks fleeing the havoc of the Middle East. This election the niqab became, according to the Left, an ugly divisive issue bringing the worst out of Canadians. Not the practice itself -- no, according to the Left, that so many Canadians were critical of the niqab was the real ugliness. During the niqab debate, I wasn’t thinking about the opinions of "old stock" Canadians, but of the people I met in those refugee offices in Armenia. What would they think when they found out that Canada is now beginning to condone some of those radical practices they were fleeing?
Providing refugees with a home means more than just opening our borders out of good intentions. It also means providing them a place where they can grow and prosper in a nation that doesn’t tolerate religious fanaticism. A place that does not condone the belief that you should be ashamed to be a woman, and that it is okay to cover your face.
These are people fleeing to something. But we often forget: they are also fleeing from something.
(PHOTO: "Ani from Armenia" by haigoes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.)
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