Canadians Don't Waver In Welcome For Refugees

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Members of Congress and a number of governors have said they oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. And they oppose President Obama's plan to welcome 10,000 Syrians. In Canada, the newly elected liberal government is pushing ahead with a plan to let in 25,000 Syrians by the end of the year. NPR's Martin Kaste crossed the border to find out why the politics of refugees may look so different there.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Mohammed Alsaleh is a 26-year-old who came to Canada a year ago, after he was tortured by the Assad regime in Syria. Now he sits in a Vancouver Starbucks, dressed in blue scrubs. He just came from his nurses aide training nearby. And he recalls the shock he felt when he arrived in this peaceful, rainy city.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: I was, like, saying to myself, what did I do (laughter)?

KASTE: He didn't know a single person in all of Canada. And he wondered how he'd survive here so alone.

ALSALEH: But that changed the next day. The Canadians, I can tell you, are - they are the most friendly population in the whole Earth.

KASTE: Canada is generous with its refugees. They get free medical care, subsidized language classes, stipends. And when they arrive in Vancouver, their first stop after the airport is here in the welcome center. It's a lobby in a special hospital for refugees right downtown. At this moment, there's just one young family of Syrians sitting here, surrounded by suitcases, looking dazed. But very soon, this room is going to get a lot more crowded.

CHRIS FRIESEN: We're talking about 25,000 refugees coming to Canada in a matter of weeks.

KASTE: Chris Friesen is with the Immigration Services Society of British Columbia. His organization alone will go from processing about 900 refugees a year to maybe 3,000 just in the next six weeks. He's scrambling to find places for all those people to sleep.

FRIESEN: We've developed, you know, it's sort of like the Airbnb on steroids, OK? We're doing a housing registry for refugees.

KASTE: And the offers are streaming in - spare rooms, basement suites. One real estate developer has offered free apartments.

FRIESEN: You know, I've got a lot of self-imposed bruises because I'm pinching myself here. After 10 years of negative discourse on refugees, suddenly they've become sexy. Everybody wants a refugee.

KASTE: So what's the difference between Canada and the U.S.? Well, one big factor is that they've already had their election before the attacks in Paris. During the fall campaign, refugees got a lot of sympathy, in part because of that famous photo of the little boy who drowned on his way to Europe. It turned out that his family had applied to come to Canada and had been denied. The boy's aunt lives in British Columbia. And Canadians saw her on television, weeping over his death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIMA KURDI: And then when he look in his left arm, with the older boy, Ghalib, he was already dead.

KASTE: The Liberal Party's Justin Trudeau promised to bring in 25,000 Syrians by the end of the year. And now that he's become prime minister, he says he's sticking with that plan, though his government has yet to release the details of how that'll work. And there are some rumblings that the deadline will slip. And Paris has had an effect on the public. One newspaper poll this week showed a majority of Canadians now oppose fast-track resettlement. Brad Wall, the premier of Saskatchewan, raised the possibility that rushing things could let a terrorist slip in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAD WALL: Usually one miss out of 25,000 would be acceptable for government or for business or for almost any organization. I don't know that it is in this instance.

KASTE: Still, this is Canada. And unlike some of the governors south of the border, Wall said he had no intention of trying to block the refugees from coming to his province. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Vancouver.

Copyright © 2015 NPR