A universal language

Local artists create colouring book for incoming Syrian refugees

A universal language

FOLLOWING Canada’s recent admittance of 25,000 Syrian refugees, one thing has become clear: integration into Canadian society now depends on the quality of the opportunities available to them.

Last February, artists Rafi Ghanaghounian, Andrea Pearce, and Nicole Baillargeon undertook an ambitious project in the form of a colouring book for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Their project, a success in Toronto’s new Syrian community, exists at the nexus of art and social justice and is intended to help Syrian children and their families acclimatize to the new environment. 

Inspired by an idea from Windsor high-school teacher Bronwen Wood, Pearce and Baillargeon, who are both from Windsor, decided to introduce the project in Toronto. Tapping into the wealth of creative talent the city has to offer, the Welcome to Toronto colouring book features artwork from over 25 Toronto artists. The text under each image is in both English and Arabic. 

EDIT_COURTESY MYLENE HANGDAAN - Syrian Refugee Colouring Book 3

Courtesy Mylene Hangdaan.

The book project received financial support from a gofundme.com campaign that helped cover its initial printing costs.

The scenes depicted are a medley of images of some of Toronto’s architectural landmarks, seasonal activities, and favourite pastimes, to introduce Syrian families with Torontonian culture. Adding an individual touch, artists designed images that reflected their personal view of culture in Toronto. 

Ghanaghounian revealed that he had an intimate relation to the refugee experience. “I was also interested in the project because of my own background — as I immigrated to Canada from Iraq just before the war with Iran, as well as my grandparents escaping the Armenian genocide,” he explained. “This project let me reconnect with my own history, and also has allowed me to share the pleasures that Toronto has to offer.” 

The book is being sold online at keep6.ca and at the Spacing Store, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Gardiner Museum, with the goal of raising enough funds to provide each Syrian family resettling in Toronto with a copy.

The book was launched at the Gladstone Hotel last February with a donation of over 500 books to school boards and organizations like Costi, who also helped with distribution. According to Ghanaghounian and Pearce, feedback from all involved has been positive.

On the project’s attempt to mix art and social justice, Baillargeon, Ghanougian, and Pearce agree that the value of art lies in its communicable aspect. Both likened art to a universal language. 

“Art is certainly a natural platform to explore social justice issues. Language and other means of communication can sometimes have limitations that wouldn’t necessarily apply to visual art,” said Pearce. “So much can be expressed in an image; the language of art is universal.”

Ghanaghounian echoes similar sentiments about art’s values: “Art always plays a huge role in any culture and has an ability to bring attention to specific issues that are most relevant to that culture. In this case, art was used to incorporate everyday activities in Toronto to help a specific group encountering numerous challenges to transition more smoothly into their new environment, and it was wonderful to be able to contribute in this way.”

A question of legitimacy

Evaluating the sincerity of humanitarian aid initiatives for Syrian refugees

A question of legitimacy

ON September 15, 2015, University of Toronto president Meric Gertler released a statement addressing the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Gertler wrote of the “overwhelming distress, sorrow, and frustration” he felt and stated how he was proud to be part of a community that was “joining an urgent, global response to the tragedy.”

Upon closer examination, however, Gertler’s address did not offer much in response to the crisis. Aside from listing “many examples of research, scholarship, and teaching from across our academic community that directly touch on issues raised by the crisis,” he did not demonstrate how the university is actively working to mitigate the impact of the crisis. 

Gertler did reference the expansion of the university’s Scholars-at-Risk program that will, at first, focus on Syrian students at risk. He also redirected readers to the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, in which the University of Toronto has also agreed to partake. Yet, he did not put forward any initiatives the university itself will spearhead in order to provide refugees with what they require most at this time: basic human necessities.

Like those of the rest of North American society, Gertler’s actions — or rather, lack thereof — seem to be induced by psychological egoism. The theory defines every human action as being motivated by self-interest, meaning there are always selfish motives behind what appear to be altruistic actions.

When it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis, the self-motivation stems from its notoreity. People have adopted the crisis as the newest humanitarian trend; everyone is eager to be one of the passengers aboard the humanitarian aid bandwagon. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s welcoming of the first plane carrying Syrian refugees to Canada was the onset of the trend. Now, for the sake of public recognition, appeal, and approval, institutions like the University of Toronto are rushing to release statements that purport to highlight exactly how they are “making the world a better place.”

These insincere instances of humanitarian aid being brought forward only result in a lack of genuine commitment to the cause. With Gertler’s address being a prime example of how insincerity merely leads to perfunctory efforts, there are a few irksome components of the university’s contributions that demonstrate its lack of real commitment. 

First, as part of the Scholars-at-Risk program, the university is matching donations up to $500,000. It is questionable why it does not merely kickstart the fundraising campaign by donating the full amount. The funds covering their donation come from undesignated gifts that are to be used towards fundraising activities, and it would have been more effective to have donated the entire amount from the beginning. 

Second, the provision of academic-based financial aid to a select few refugees over the next decade is not an active way to help those in need.

Instead of providing supplemental bursaries — which in the long run, result in more funding for the university — it would be better to donate that money directly to a foundation that is focused on helping refugees adjust to life in Canada.

Third, with over 80,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, it is reprehensible that the university is unable to lead its own initiative. There is no doubt that the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge will be helpful but more could be accomplished if the University of Toronto launched its own project.

Hopefully, the university’s efforts will still manage to benefit some refugees before their time in the spotlight comes to an end. Unfortunately, recent humanitarian-inspired trends have all seemed to end as abruptly as they began. The summer of 2014 brought the short-lived ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and just a few months ago, the terrorist attacks in Paris sparked a Facebook-wide profile picture update. It would be interesting to note whether or not the participants of these initiatives remember that those people are still suffering today. 

Even more concerning than short-lived, noncommittal humanitarian aid is the objectification of refugees that has resulted from the popularity of the crisis. The media is rife with videos of Syrian children experiencing snow and other features exclusive to Canada, newspaper profiles documenting ‘first days of,’ and public posts claiming ownership over the situation; one woman goes so far as to refer to the person she is sponsoring as “our Syrian refugee.” The individuality of each person coming to Canada for help is becoming lost in the process.

It is time to put the humanity back into humanitarianism and to start performing altruistic actions from a wholehearted place. Although humanitarian aid requires real effort, time, and commitment, it does not need to be documented or publicly displayed. Furthermore, we must always keep in mind that those receiving help are just as human as those providing it. 

Ariel Gomes is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English, French, and linguistics. She is The Varsity‘s associate senior copy editor.

Introducing Toronto’s first hospital-based refugee clinic

Large numbers of Syrian refugees are in need of healthcare, and U of T doctors are helping out

Introducing Toronto’s first hospital-based refugee clinic

Fifteen-thousand Syrian refugees are expected to arrive in Canada by the end of February; most of them are in need of general exams by family physicians, and U of T doctors are doing their part to help.

Meb Rashid is a professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine (DFCM) at U of T and the director of the Crossroads Clinic at Women’s College Hospital, the first hospital-based refugee health clinic in Toronto. Due to the large numbers of Syrian refugees expected to enter Canada, Rashid created a program of rotating intake clinics comprised of family medicine health teams around Toronto to see refugees after they arrive in Canada for initial assessments.

Syrian refugees are checked twice for infectious diseases before coming to Canada, but chronic or latent diseases might go undetected, which is why seeing a family doctor is so important. Rashid’s network includes pediatricians, psychiatrists, dentists, and other specialists to provide quick and easy treatment for patients who need further care.

“I know from my own experience in Lebanon that Syrian refugees there have found it extremely difficult to receive adequate health care,” said Peter Goodspeed who is a journalist and volunteer at Lifeline Syria, an initiative to welcome and support 1,000 Syrian refugees as they settle in the GTA over the next two years through the help of sponsor groups. “So it is essential that they receive immediate attention on their arrival in Canada, simply to ease their own concerns and to speed and ease their integration into Canadian society,” explained Goodspeed.

Refugees may not seek out health care right away due to many different factors, such as difficulty in understanding Canada’s health care system. In late January and early February, Rashid’s network of clinics treated between 200 to 250 refugees in ten days. The network managed to see this many people, even though new refugees were not originally connecting with the clinics as quickly as they were arriving. The clinics were eventually able to reach such high success thanks to the help of Dr. Ben Langer and family medicine residents, who raised awareness of the clinics online and at meetings and fairs.

Some issues Syrian refugees are expected to face are uncompleted vaccinations, hypertension, diabetes, war-related injuries, and mental illness.

Concerns have been raised about a delay in psychological services for refugees suffering from post-traumatic stress or other psychological issues, but the refugee clinics around Toronto aim to offer friendly faces and a place to connect.

Many other U of T doctors are helping to connect Syrian refugees with health care as well. St. Michael’s Hospital doctors Ashna Bowry, professor at DFCM, and Gabrielle Inglis, U of T alumna, teamed up with Mike Evans, DFCM faculty member and YouTube creator, to create an Arabic-language whiteboard YouTube video. The video welcomes Syrian refugees to St. Michael’s Hospital and explains the procedures they will go through at the clinic. Evans said that the family medicine department wanted to create a welcoming experience for refugees.

“[W]hen you have more than enough, some people build fences… but some build a longer table,” said Evans. “We are in the table group.”

Thanks to the support of U of T doctors, the process of finding healthcare has gotten easier for Canada’s newest citizens.