'Refugees Welcome' rallies expose Canada's broken immigration system

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In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis and the death of a three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy Alan Kurdi, activist group No One Is Illegal is calling for a month of action from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to pressure the Canadian government to open Canada's borders to refugees and displaced people in crisis.

Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

Refugees Welcome mobilizations have been held and planned across the country. On Sunday September 6, over 800 people gathered together at the first Refugees Welcome rally in downtown, Vancouver.

Find a Refugees Welcome rally near you.

Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

Activists, friends, and families stood together in solidarity to share their support for the Kurdi family and the 60 million refugees currently displaced all over the world. Grief and frustration were heard in the voices of the crowd as they chanted, "Refugees welcome! Refugees welcome! Alan should be here!"


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

Images of Alan's tiny lifeless body on the shore of a Turkish beach has broken the deafening silence on the refugee crisis and sparked a national outcry over Canada's lack of support for refugees.


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

Alan's family had been trying to escape war in Syria when their boat to Greece, packed with other refugees, capsized. Abdullah, Alan's father, is the sole survivor of the family. Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib, and mother Rehanna, all drowned. The family's ultimate goal was to come to Canada.


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

The Kurdi family's relatives in Canada were in attendance at the Refugees Welcome rally in Vancouver. Alan Karim, the nephew of Abdullah and Rehanna, and cousin of Alan and Ghalib, was one of the speakers at the rally.

Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

"For the past for years, my mom has supported her family in the middle east –- putting food on their tables and paying for their rent. When she heard the tragic news, she was devastated and thought she had failed them," said Karim.


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

His mother, Tima Karim, who stood by his side as he delivered his speech to the crowd, is also the sister of Abdullah Kurdi and auntie to the Kurdi boys.


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

"The refugees are desperate. They need help from the whole world," continued Alan Karim. "The world is now awake and aware of this refugee crisis. And it is time for action."


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

Nissy Koye, a family friend of the Karim and Kurdi family also called for immediate action, calling the tragic loss of Alan, Ghalib, and Rehanna Kurdi a wake up call for the world.

"Abdullah said that his son and his wife survived ISIS, they survived the brutal border crossing, they survived the migration to Turkey, they survived hunger and sickness, but they did not survive the water," said Koye. "In our Kurdish community, we have heard about the endless amount of people that have drowned in order to survive, but Alan Kurdi woke up the world. His body on that shore is the outcome of our silence."


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

"There are millions and millions of people that need our help. It is too late to save Alan, Ghalib, and Rehanna. But it is clear that the Canadian and international community need to do more to help. These are human beings. They are not pawns in a political game. Our silence is no more."

The crowd cheered in unison as Koye criticized Canada's strict refugee policies and demanded emergency measures be taken immediately to welcome refugees to Canada. "Our system is designed to fail the refugees," said Koye.


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

UNHCR estimates there are 59.5 million people currently displaced worldwide. Yet out of the millions of people who are in need of our help, Canada has only taken in 2,300 Syrian refugees over a two-year period. Between 2006 and 2012, indiscriminate restrictions implemented by the federal government have resulted in a decrease of the number of refugees accepted by 30 per cent.


Refugees Welcome rally Sept. 6 in Vancouver. Photo: Lenee Son

Activist and comedian, Sean Devlin says these new laws have made it increasingly difficult for refugees to apply for asylum to Canada -- most recently, a law introduced in 2012 made it mandatory for people seeking asylum to get certified by the United Nations before applying to Canada.

"People applying for asylum are in a state of emergency," said Devlin. "If you can imagine what it would be like if we applied that same logic to an emergency happening in our own communities."

"If you woke up one night and your house was on fire and you thought your children might die, and you picked up the phone and you dialed 911, and on the other end they said, 'prove it.' Can you go to the United Nations and get them to give you a piece of paper that proves that your house is on fire?"

Devlin, a comedian known for his work with Shit Harper Did, closed his speech with a powerful joke.

"A Kurdish person, an Eritrean person, and a Filipino person walk into a bar. Before they can say anything, the bartender says, 'there's no space for you here.' But before they leave, other people in that bar, the people who give that bar power, give it its' business, stand up out of their seats, and they say with one voice -- 'I see a whole lot of room here. Please come in.'"


To see the rest of the photos from #RefugeesWelcome Vancouver, click here.

Lenee Son is a freelance multimedia journalist living in metro Vancouver. Follow her on twitter: @leneeson

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