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.