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The refugee on your doorstep is really your neighbour, and deserves to be treated as one

By Muriel Duncan

My husband's mother has a number of wise if pointed sayings that act as quick behaviour lessons. "I'm in, pull up the ladder," she'll say when someone has looked after themselves at the expense of the family community, finishing off the last of the orange juice, for example.

The old saying speaks to selfish behaviour but also to the short memory we all have about how it felt when we were in need. And it applies nicely to larger issues, such as the way some Canadians look at immigration and refugee acceptance these days. We tend to forget our family stories, and how it was when our people were on the outside, fleeing a dictator maybe, or famine, forced off our farm lands or in search of freedom.

After all, most of us are from immigrant stock, whose families came to a land owned by the Aboriginal peoples. We got in okay when the ladder was still sturdy.

Canada has always been a home to immigrants. It is one of only three countries in the world currently encouraging immigration (Australia and United States are the others). And, in the recent past, we have had a good reputation for compassionate refugee policy. The United Nations awarded the people of Canada the 1986 Nansen Medal for excellent work in the protection of refugees.

But in the new climate of fear of terrorists, we tend to suspect strangers; and, in the name of security and efficiency, our federal government has narrowed refugee claimant chances. A single Immigration and Refugee Board official decides whether or not a person faces real danger in his or her home country and there is currently no right of appeal on the merits of this decision.

As churches try to encourage the government to implement a merit-based appeal system, a few congregations have offered sanctuary to a refugee family at their door. Even that has been threatened.

Refugees should be a sign to us of larger global issues. We are living in a time of transformation. We may have understood Marshall McLuhan's notion of the global village in theory; now we live it in practice.

In Canadian cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, immigrant destinations of choice, our lives are more complicated, and richer, as we learn about each other's cultures.

But that is only a miniature of the real global village. We all share this one world and everything we do to this world affects us all. Whether through e-mail, popular music, weather patterns or fair drug distribution, what happens on this street of the world village will soon affect what happens two blocks over.

So, as former U.S. president Bill Clinton says, our next big task is to learn to live with differences, with the things that divide us across the world. The affluent Western middle class can't forever exist in security if neighbours are making $2 a day. "We have to create a world with more prosperity and fewer terrorists," he says.

And while we work for that, we need to remember that we in Canada are among the fortunate few. The least we can do is treat our fellow world citizens with compassion and justice when they are in trouble.


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