Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

The Syrian refugee debate exposes the limits of Whistler's generosity



When Nancy Wilhelm-Morden stepped outside her mandate as a small-town mayor last year to urge Ottawa to ramp up its support for Syrian refugees — effectively paving the way for the arrival of Whistler's first refugee family — I have to admit I had my doubts.

Whistler, as we know full well, is not exactly equipped to settle some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. There is no established Syrian community here, a limited number of Arabic speakers, and little in the way of support services that other major urban centres can offer.

Then, as the disturbing images from the Syrian civil war continued to flood my newsfeed, and the number of refugees fleeing unimaginable horrors climbed into the tens of thousands, I couldn't help but ask: why not Whistler?

We are one of the most privileged communities in one of the most privileged nations in the world, a town filled with passionate, resourceful, generous people who regularly donate their time, money and intellect to a whole host of worthy causes.

But, at least for some Whistlerites, that generosity has limits.

With just weeks to go before the Syrian family of five is set to land here, the debate that has raged for months at the national level has found its way to our little resort community. The chief argument I've heard against settling refugees here is that we should "take care of our own" — whatever that means in a town made up of transient nomads — before extending the same courtesy to a bunch of Middle Easterners we've never met.

You'll find the thinking on the refugee issue is generally divided into two camps: The one that believes only those we share a passport with are worthy of our help, and the other that believes help should be given where it's needed most. I'd like to think the majority of Whistlerites fall into the latter camp. At an elemental level, it's simply the right thing to do.

I also understand it's not easy to make it in this town, and I can empathize with the scores of people struggling to find affordable housing and make ends meet. I've been there. But to suggest that these refugees are taking accommodation from under the noses of hard-working locals is to mask what is essentially a straw-man argument. The house that was donated would likely never have been put on the rental market anyway, and even if it was, a single home is a drop in the bucket compared to the bigger issue of vacant properties and the proliferation of home-sharing services like Airbnb. To suggest otherwise is either willfully incendiary or just plain ignorant.

In the midst of such an emotionally charged debate, it's important to keep things in perspective: We've all chosen to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But at least we have a choice. When the money, work and housing dry up, we can pack up our bags and move on. These refugees don't have the same luxury.

In fact, it isn't unrealistic to think that for this adult family of Christian Syrians, who are currently living in limbo in a Lebanese apartment, this is the first time they've been given the freedom to make their own choices in a very long time. We don't get to decide what's best for them.

It's easy to lose sight of the fact that there are real people sitting at the heart of this. They aren't statistics. They aren't grist for the political mill or a sob story to fill the nightly news. They have hopes and dreams and passions and desires just like the rest of us. And they've made the decision to come to Whistler knowing full well there will be challenges. Those challenges aren't going away anytime soon. But to decree from our gilded thrones that they're better off somewhere else is to rob them of their autonomy, their humanity. Haven't they already been dehumanized enough?

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