Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Statement by Mr. Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, NDP): Syria

Mr. Speaker, I rise with a heavy heart, like many in this place, as we debate again the situation in Syria. I say “again” because we have dealt with the issue before. Some things have changed, but obviously not enough, as we have heard from our colleagues.

When we hear of the deaths of 70,000, refugee numbers of 1.5 million, 4.25 million displaced and 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, it is really hard to get our heads around this.

We understand there is a desperate need for humanitarian assistance. We understand that the refugee crisis is getting worse. We understand that we have a government in Damascus that is deciding to stay put and continue with its crimes against humanity. We understand that there is a civil war that is getting worse in many ways. However, we have to understand what we can do.

All too often in our parliaments and our legislatures around the world we are given all the reasons why we cannot do things. If we just take a look at the first three months of 2013, the number of Syrian refugees more than doubled because we, seemingly, could not figure out what to do. Let us remember, this is a conflict that has been going on for a couple of years.

In January, there were around 500,000 refugees. By April, there were more than 1.3 million who fled to neighbouring countries, as we have heard. The United Nations refugee council is saying that it registers 7,000 new refugees every day. More than 440,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon. Syrian refugees now make up more than 10% of its population.

We also know the burden that has on other countries. Therefore, what we have to do is understand what is possible. I am going to touch on some of the issues that have brought us to this point, but let us go back to last October. That is when the foreign affairs committee was seized with this issue. Frankly, it was our party that pushed to have hearings on Syria and the government agreed, which was helpful. We did a study at the foreign affairs committee because we needed to better understand from Syrian Canadians, from experts and certainly from the government, what we were doing and what we could be doing. From that study we put forward a motion to ask the government to do a couple of things. One was to deal with family reunification, to fast-track those Syrians stuck in the refugee camps who had fled the slaughter in Syria to be sponsored by family members here in Canada. The other thing we asked was to increase humanitarian support, particularly in Turkey.

I listened carefully to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who quite rightly noted that there is a burden on Jordan to take in so many refugees. It is a country that is not as well off, certainly, as Canada. He mentioned helping Lebanon as well.

However, it is important to underline here that out of that committee report came a motion that was debated in the House. We underlined the importance of Turkey. I am critical of the government for not following up on both of those suggestions because when it comes to refugees and reunification, his colleague, the Minister of Immigration, made an announcement in Turkey to suggest that we were going to take in 5,000 refugees. This was good news for many of us when we first heard it. Sadly, we found out when we looked into the announcement that it was not for Syrian refugees leaving the slaughter in Syria, it was for refugees who had already been documented from other countries.

We do have a proud tradition in this country of accommodating and helping people who are fleeing strife, be it natural disaster in Haiti, as was mentioned, conflict like Lebanon in the 1980s or the infamous stories of those who fled Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I have heard the minister tonight say he will talk to his colleague, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. I do not understand why the minister himself, on two occasions, did not meet with the community when asked to. I am talking about the minister’s colleague, not the minister. I look forward to his following up.

However, the other thing that has to be noted in this debate tonight, going back to my comments, is that we are all seized with this issue and often paralyzed because we do not believe there is anything more we can do. This is something we can do. We have Syrian Canadian families right now who want to help their family members. Members should think of it right now as if it was their family member who fled conflict. If members could help them out, they would do it. That is all these people are asking for. That is all we are asking for. That is why people have signed the petition asking the government to do just that, to meet with members of the community and to open our doors and our hearts to people fleeing the slaughter.

We need to do more and, in the spirit of having a debate where we are focused on concrete solutions, we need to acknowledge, as in my intervention with the minister, the burden this has been particularly on children. There are UN officials who have said that children and women are on the front lines of this war.

I mentioned in October that we had committee hearings on Syria, and we heard from Syrian Canadians and from experts. We heard from Mariam Hamou, a very proud Syrian Canadian woman, and I think anyone who was at the committee will remember her testimony in particular because it was so human. As I said, sometimes it is difficult to get one’s head around the numbers, but in her testimony in the committee hearings she said:

Assad’s offensives on his citizens are claiming on average 150 people a day.

This was back in October. She continued:

On October 17—that’s yesterday—155 people were killed. On October 16, 133 people were killed. On October 15, 100 people were killed. You get the idea here, and this is just in the past few days. The latest report is that regime forces are using barrel bombs in civilian areas, specifically on schools, killing most of the children inside. The barrel bombs are, again, not in Free Syrian Army stronghold areas, but are targeting children specifically.

I apologize that there is some vivid language here, but she went on to say:

Torture has been reported in every city and town, and down to every family. I don’t want to get into the chilling details of what goes on, but I’ll share with you one story that just sends chills down my spine. Women are being systematically raped in Syria, not by one, two, or three of the militia men, but by many people. After the militia men are finished raping the victim, they insert a live mouse…[into the woman] to destroy any sense of dignity that might have been left for this woman.

Children are not only dying by the hands of the regime’s brutality, but by malnourishment, as food and water are becoming increasingly scarce. Food costs in Syria have gone up six times the price of what they were before the revolution. A loaf of bread is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and families are going without food at times. Babies are dying as mothers are not able to breastfeed them because of the lack of nutrition for the mothers….

That is what we are talking about. That is the human story. We heard from the minister on his visit to the refugee camp. It is clear that there is a need to do more. It is clear there are challenges, no question. I am heartened by the fact that there might be an international conference to actually end this war. However, we must be vigilant and we must do everything we can do.

With that in mind, I have spoken, as we all have, to Syrian Canadians and others, including experts. In fact, I just spoke with someone who is out of Washington today, but whose expertise is around peace, security and women, which is the issue for our century to look at. The issue is how we can ensure that women are not on the front lines of the conflict but are also involved in making sure we find peace, because all too often they are the victims and not allowed in, so to speak.

To that end, not only does the NDP want the government to fast-track family members and increase aid, particularly to countries like Turkey where we should do more, but also focus on women. To that end, New Democrats want the government to engage with the Syrian Women’s Network. This is a group of women, civil society members and leaders, working to ensure they can do everything they can to help civilians right now, not only in the camps but in Syria, and to strengthen the hope that everyone had at the beginning of this two years ago that there are going to be opportunities for all.

That is something Canada can do, and we should do it in the following framework. We should do it by saying that our government will lead by engaging Syrian Canadians, those who have expertise and, as I said in my comments earlier, who have already spent their own money to help people on the ground. Some have gone into the conflict zones themselves not to wage war but to work in makeshift hospitals, deliver food aid, help kids, to do what they can with what they have the best way they can.

To that end, New Democrats want the government to have a particular focus on women, work with the Syrian Women’s Network and look at putting together a network of Syrian Canadians who will be able to strengthen civil society and opportunities for a lasting political solution. Make no mistake, if tomorrow there were an end to the conflict as we see it now, it does not mean peace and stability. It means that the next phase will happen. As Canadians, we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to prepare for what the next steps are.

It is clear when we look at what happened in Iraq and even in Libya that we must ensure we are ready and prepared to help on the ground when things change, with basic things such as water and sewage, ensuring basic services are met and basic governance. I know, the minister knows and everyone in the House knows that there are Syrian Canadians who are willing and able to do that. We can work with women’s organizations, the Syrian Women’s Network and Syrian Canadians, coordinate their efforts, both human resources and money, to look at how we can help immediately on the ground, to strengthen the institutions that are already doing work through the UN and others, and to start looking at what Canada’s role will be when this conflict ends. Every conflict ends. Every war ends. It is just a matter of when it ends. Then the question is what we do about it.

I know the Minister of Foreign Affairs is a fan of Churchill. During the Second World War, which my father served in overseas, in 1942, I believe it was, he was already planning for what would happen in post-war Germany. He had some of the best and the brightest looking at what needs and services would be required and who would be able to fill that role. It was because he understood that wars and conflicts end. Then the question was what to do and what one’s contribution would be. The question is: What is Canada’s contribution going to be?

We should look at the challenges we face, such as who is being affected by this war and the huge toll this has taken on civilians, particularly women and children, as I have underlined in my comments.

Just to give an example of what this means for women, not only are they affected by becoming refugees and having to leave their homes and take care of their children without enough resources to support them, but we have evidence that there are as many as 6,400 women who have been detained by the regime. One thousand of them are university students.

Let us remember who started this movement. This was not malicious, from outside. This was not people who picked up arms. This was a peaceful movement of young people—not entirely but primarily—who decided they wanted a different Syria. They led, in this response to the government’s crackdown, by protesting peacefully, not by picking up guns, not by using any so-called terrorist methods. They simply used their passion, their hearts and their drive.

What has happened is that many of them have been killed and many of them have been detained. We understand that Syrian women and children who have been affected are targeted, as I read in this testimony. Can members imagine targeting schools? Many of us have worked as teachers or have kids, and we all grew up and went through the system. To think that someone is actually targeting a school is beyond comprehension. It is a horror. That is why I think we should be engaging to do more with those who have been engaged on the ground.

I want to finish up by saying, while the world watches what happens in Syria and wonders what else we can do, let us remember what this country has done in the past.

I remember a story of a couple who were over here in the Laurentian Mountains for a weekend. They were horrified as they watched South Asians in boats and saw the news reports. They saw that they were in peril, that they needed help, and the world was not opening its doors.

That couple came back to this city and they got in touch with the government. They held some public meetings, and they opened the minds of the government of the day, which was a Conservative government. They said we must do more. They held local meetings where people—church groups, bowling teams and others—sponsored refugees, to help those people who were on the high seas and who were being left behind.

That couple was my parents. My mother was the mayor of Ottawa at the time. It was a grassroots movement that said that as Canadians we have something to do. She called it Project 4000. It opened the doors to 4,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees here in this city, and challenged every other mayor across the country to do the same.

We went from having a quota of 8,000 refugees for that year. Because of grass roots and because Canadians mobilized and said we could do something about this, it changed to 60,000. It was Flora MacDonald who was the minister who did that.

I say to the government and to Canadians that we can do more, we can do it together and we can show Syrians that we are here to help with that. We can say to the world that Canada cannot solve the problem, but we can do our bit. I think if we support refugees, if we do a little more in humanitarian support, and we decide that we are going to engage all Syrians who can help with civil society, with women, supporting women in particular, Canada will be proud of what it can do in a horrific, awful conflict.