The refugee crisis is daunting, but Canada offers an inspiring example of how to help.
Mohammad Amini is a bright, determined, 21-year-old living in Jakarta, Indonesia, with his family — or rather, what's left of it.
The Aminis belong to an ethnic group called the Hazaras, who are violently persecuted in Afghanistan. When the Taliban killed Mohammad's older brother for teaching English and threatened the rest of the family in 2014, they fled the country. Soon after, Mohammad’s grief-stricken father died of a heart attack.
Jakarta was supposed to be a temporary stop for the Aminis, who hoped to get to Australia, but they've been awaiting resettlement for four years. Refugees aren’t legally allowed to work or go to school in Indonesia, so Mohammad and his siblings, who range in age from 15 to 23, do what they can to develop their skills and contribute to society while they wait. They spend several days a week studying and volunteering at Roshan Learning Center, a community-based educational initiative serving refugees, and Mohammad studies at Kiron, an online university for refugees.
"I consider myself as a resilient person," Amini says. "I'd rather spend my time In Indonesia learning more skills, practice my languages skills, and build my character, than just waste my time to wait for my resettlement."
The Aminis make the most of their circumstances in Jakarta, but in reality, they are stuck.
Some of the thousands of asylum-seeking families in Indonesia sleep on the streets and in parks in Jakarta, with mosquito nets as shelters. Photo via Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images.
If they go back to Afghanistan, they’ll likely be killed. If they stay in Indonesia, they can’t work, get an accredited education, or become citizens. Finances are an ongoing struggle, charity is a necessity, and their options for a safe and productive life are limited.
"We are alive with the hope of that one day we will be accepted to a third country," Amini says. "And if there is no resettlement in a third country, our whole life will be destroyed. There is no other option for us." ++
Millions of refugees like the Aminis live in this state of limbo, where chances of resettlement grow more and more unlikely.
In Indonesia, the United Nations recently told refugees that getting transferred to another country could take 15 years or more — if they’re lucky enough to be resettled at all. For the more than 65 million people who are currently displaced, and the 22 million of whom are refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, that timeline could only grow longer, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
While those numbers have increased, the number of refugees the U.S. accepts has been drastically reduced. Obama set the refugee ceiling at 110,000 for 2017, but Trump cut that limit to 45,000 in 2018 — the lowest in decades. And according to the International Rescue Commission, the U.S. is on track to only take in around 22,000 this year — less than half of the limit. For perspective, that's approximately one refugee for every 15,000 Americans.
The numbers don't lie: the U.S. can be doing more to help refugees. And they can look to their Northern neighbors for a resourceful way to make it happen.
Canada empowers its people to help refugees through an inspiring private refugee sponsorship program.
In addition to government sponsorship like exists in the U.S., refugees can come to Canada through private sponsorship — a process through which a group of Canadian citizens or permanent residents provide funds and mentorship to a refugee family for one year.
The program allows sponsors to choose refugees to sponsor, cover resettlement expenses through private donation, and personally help them assimilate into Canadian society — all at little cost to the government.
About 280,000 refugees have been settled through Canada's private sponsorship program since it began in 1978.
Amir and Nour Fattal fled Aleppo, Syria, when their apartment was bombed in 2012. The Fattals never imagined they would have to leave their homeland — and never wanted to. But war changes everything.
Like the Aminis, they spent years in limbo in a stopover country. But in 2016, they and their young daughter were brought from Turkey to Toronto, Canada, through private sponsorship. Terry Dellaportas, one of the Fattals' Canadian sponsors, invited me to view the Facebook group their sponsorship group used to organize fundraising and logistics. As I scrolled through a year's worth of posts on everything from paperwork, to apartments, to airport pickup, I was struck by the raw beauty of collective human kindness.
Millions of people have been displaced by the Syrian civil war. Aleppo, once a thriving metropolis, has been reduced to rubble in many areas. Photo via Ameer Alhalbi/Getty Images.
And private sponsorship isn't just about charity.
Research shows refugees have a neutral-to-beneficial impact on the economy, largely because immigrants are twice as likely as the average citizen to start businesses. They also enrich society culturally, especially when their assimilation includes celebrating the skills and knowledge they bring with them.
The Fattals, for example, with the encouragement of their sponsors, started the Beroea Kitchen, which serves Syrian cuisine from Aleppo. "These are the meals our mothers made us when we were children and taught us how to make ourselves," Amir says on the business's website.
And they do more than just sell food. Through a community "Supper Club," Beroea brings people together to share a meal, share stories and ideas, and make friends.
Other countries have started following Canada's lead. The United States should consider it too.
Britain, Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates all have private sponsorship programs in the works.
"Safety and security" is often lauded as the main reason for limiting the number of refugees America accepts. However, refugees are the most vetted group of people to enter the country and research shows that they pose no greater threat to our safety and security than the average American. Cost and jobs are also used as excuses. However, our economy is in great shape according to the president, unemployment is at historic lows, and refugees aren't a drain the economy or jobs anyway.
The main issues, then, are government spending and concerns over assimilation. Private sponsorship addresses both of those problems.
Photo via Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.
The Aminis are so similar to the Fattals — service-oriented, ambitious, and eager to contribute. But their ability to put those qualities to full use is simply a matter of circumstance.
Scott Smiley, a volunteer teacher at Roshan in Jakarta, says Mohammad and his family are exactly the kinds of citizens that nations want and need. "These people are so incredible," he says. "Countries should be bidding on them."
Developed countries should help change their circumstance.
But in the meantime, the Aminis will continue to do the only things they can in limbo — study and prepare for an uncertain future, try not to lose hope, and wait.
++ Mohammad Amini's name has been changed for the family's security.