Canadian volunteers secretly interview migrants in Jordan. A lucky few will make it to Canada
In Jordan, a group of Canadian volunteers secretly interview desperate migrants. With their blessing, a lucky few will make it to Canada
Ildy Sziladi, Linda Raffin, Martin Mark, Christine Ignas, Jamie Forget, Donald Igbokwe Front row: Pauline Murphy and Alexandra Whittle. They travelled to Amman, Jordan to select Syrian and Iraqi refugees for Canada’s private sponsorship program. Mark, director, Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto, led the mission. – Marina Jimenez / Toronto Star
AMMAN, JORDAN — They look like any other group of tourists, with cameras slung around their necks, and water bottles and guidebooks stuffed in their backpacks. This is a disguise they will work scrupulously to maintain.
If word were to leak out that these eight Canadians — the only Canadian group in the trenches — are here to select refugees to come to Canada, their modest $30-a-night downtown Amman hotel could suddenly become a target for every refugee in the city. Their two-week mission would be in jeopardy, and could result in their immediate expulsion.
They remain low-key, working behind closed doors in a hotel room, and later, in offices at the Jesuit Centre, using volunteer Sudanese translators, who are themselves refugees.
“We are the voice of the voiceless,” said Pauline Murphy, 58 and a lay pastoral associate from St. Anthony of Padua parish in Brampton. “We would like to scoop up all the refugees and bring them to Canada, but we know it is just not possible.”
Being selected is like winning the lottery. Just one per cent of the 630,000 Syrian refugees and about five per cent of the 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan stand a chance of being resettled in the West. The rest are expected to wait out the war, and then return to their homelands.
In theory, Canada is doing its own refugee selection, taking in especially vulnerable cases referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau has promised to expand the target to 25,000 (from 10,000), and to devote an additional $100 million for refugee processing and resettlement in order to bring them all to Canada by the end of the year.
But for now, the Canadian team — all volunteers for the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT) — is the only group on the ground, and the team knows from experience how complex the task is. ORAT will prepare a list of mini profiles for parishes responding to Project Hope, the Archdiocese’s $3-million emergency appeal to resettle 100 families, and for Lifeline Syria/ Ryerson University, which hopes to accept 250 families over two years. But they must wait for Ottawa to sign off on all cases; immigration officials at the embassy in Amman must conduct interviews, security and medical checks, a process that until recently took six to nine months.
On the first night, Martin Mark, ORAT’s director and a seasoned veteran, assembles the team on the hotel’s rooftop patio. It is deserted except for three pet rabbits who hop around begging for food. Against the backdrop of a muezzin’s prayer call, and the twinkling lights from homes on the hills surrounding the downtown, he conducts a briefing. “Remember to read the refugee’s eyes, watch the body language and be tough with your time,” he says. “Use common sense and lead the conversation. Their stories have to be specific and detailed.”
They must analyze the refugees’ stories and characters dispassionately; it is a delicate balancing act between empathy and scrutiny. They are looking for the neediest, people with no relatives in Canada. But the refugees must also be resilient enough to adjust to a new country with -20C winters, where gay marriage and working women are the norm.
Many will be extremely vulnerable. The Assad regime has killed thousands, slaughtered children, tortured civilians and used chemical weapons to attack towns. The crimes committed by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS are similarly horrific. Mark advises the team against pressing for excessive details from those who have been tortured or sexually assaulted. There are no psychologists on the team; they must guard against derailing the interview, as well as their own vicarious traumatization.