Our problems pale compared to Syria’s sorrows

On Saturday the 11-member Aarafat family ended their long journey from Syria to their new home in Whitehorse. The arrival of the territory's first family of refugees from the war-torn country serves as a reminder of a few things.

On Saturday the 11-member Aarafat family ended their long journey from Syria to their new home in Whitehorse. The arrival of the territory’s first family of refugees from the war-torn country serves as a reminder of a few things.

First, their arrival wouldn’t have been possible without the selfless work done of the volunteers with Yukon Cares, who have sponsored the family. The group has so far raised $63,800, while the Yukon government has promised to commit another $18,500. This money will help the family get by during their first year and may help sponsor others.

The Aarafat’s sponsors are also responsible for finding the family a place to live, helping place their children in school, helping the adults find jobs and otherwise help them integrate into the community. The family members currently speak little English and find themselves in a culture and climate that’s wildly different from what they are accustomed. It’s a tribute to the generosity of Yukoners that many residents are eager to provide this help.

That’s notwithstanding the disingenuous grumbling you hear from some quarters about how we should focus our efforts on helping poor Canadians, rather than take in more needy. Based on this reasoning, we suppose Canadians should, as a rule, refuse to help anyone from outside our borders. For if the greatest refugee crisis that Europe has faced since the Second World War doesn’t justify a collective response by the world’s developed countries, what, pray tell, does?

Also, call it a hunch, but the characters who make these remarks do not sound like they are terribly devoted to righting the Yukon’s wrongs in the first place – whereas many involved with Yukon Cares are easily recognized as already being deeply involved in other charitable work. So this is not an either-or proposition.

The arrival of the Aarafats also serves as a reminder of the many things Yukoners take for granted, by virtue of having won the genetic lottery and being born in one of the most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world. For all of our territory’s problems – which we spend a great amount of ink in this newspaper dwelling upon – they are mere trifles compared to the hellish conditions that Syrians have had to endure over the past five years.

It all began when the Arab Spring reached Syria, and large numbers of residents decided to stand up against their dictator and demand the sort of democratic rights that Canadians so often take for granted. The country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, responded with a brutal crackdown, and Syria was soon engulfed in an all-out civil war.

Imagine living in a country in which its leader uses its air force to rain crude barrel bombs upon the population, reducing major cities to rubble. Or where the government has repeatedly used chemical weapons on its own civilians, despite Barack Obama’s hollow warnings that doing so would cross a “red line.” Or where starvation has lately been used as a weapon by pro-government forces against entire towns, with ghastly results.

Syria’s civil war has also created a power vacuum into which the Islamic State has stepped, eager to impose its demented, bloodthirsty interpretation of its religion onto an already terrorized populace. This all helps explain why so many Syrians have been willing to risk their lives by fleeing to neighbouring countries on rickety boats, frequently with tragic results.

The conflict has now claimed more than 250,000 lives. Twelve million Syrians – that’s half the country – are homeless. And the reality is that countries like Canada have stood by and watched Syria burn. Many in the western world felt the last thing their countries needed was to become bogged down in another Middle Eastern military intervention. But sitting on our hands has not been without consequence, either.

There has been one good reason to be wary of providing weapons to Assad’s allies – some are Islamic extremists who may turn those same weapons against our soldiers in the future. But Western leaders could have listened to the pleas of Syrian moderates and enforced a no-fly zone to ensure Assad’s airforce remained grounded. We didn’t, largely because Assad’s ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, didn’t like the idea.

Now, an emboldened Russia is flying its own sorties in Syria, and while it insists it is focussed on attacking terrorists, it also seems content to bomb anyone fighting Assad. It’s conceivable that greater efforts by the West a few years ago could have strengthened the hands of those seeking to topple the dictator. But now, with Russia’s help, anti-government forces are being trampled and Assad now has the upper hand.

The situation in Syria is fiendishly complicated, with some commentators reckoning that the country has become engulfed in a proxy war between a dozen other countries, driven by rivalries between Sunni and Shia factions within Islam, struggles between the United States and Russia, and more. Assad and the Islamic State are fighting one another, and yet Assad also depends on the Islamic terrorists – for as long as they pose a credible threat, some will view him as the lesser of evils.

It is, in short, a great big mess – and one that the world, including Canada, sat and watched happen. We can’t undo that now. But helping a few Syrian families who have managed to escape start new lives seems to be, if anything, a minimal expression of human decency.

Correction– An earlier version of this story stated that the Aarafat family are privately sponsored and receive no government support. In fact, the family has been brought in under Canada’s blended visa program, which sees the federal government provide six months of financial support. As well, some of the money raised by Yukon Cares may go to help sponsor another family.

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