(photo by Mohamed Azakir / World Bank via flickr)

Canada Next: why this country should welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees

Refugee crisis is rooted in past, says director of Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies

Ask Ato Quayson about the Syrian refugee crisis and he‘ll start talking about the end of the Ottoman Empire.

The director of U of T’s Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies isn't trying to duck the question. And he knows the subject is urgent – the new federal cabinet met on Nov.12 to discuss just how to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada.

He’s trying to explain that not only do the roots of the current crisis lie in the past, but that refugees have been fleeing failed states for many years.

Read more about the refugee crisis

Quayson, who co-teaches a second-year Introduction to Diaspora and Transnational Studies course, is an acclaimed literary scholar specializing in postcolonial and diasporic writing. (Read about Quayson's latest, award-winning book.)

U of T News spoke to him about the course and the refugee crisis.

What is the Introduction to Diaspora and Transnational Studies course about?
We get students to understand how complex the field of diaspora and transnational studies is. For example, this semester we’ve looked at gastro-nostalgia – the role that certain ethnic food stores and restaurants play in binding communities together – and the transnationalism of the industrial food system. Students were surprised to learn that the Subway sandwich chain is the largest purchaser of tomatoes in the world. Thus, when Subway decides to change its purchasing policy or to pay attention to the ethics of the production of the tomatoes that they purchase, it can affect the entire supply chain. And the current refugee crisis has given us an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between dispersal, mobility and what it is to be a citizen in the world today.

What did you teach students about the refugee crisis?
What I did was place the current situation in a geopolitical context. I took students back to the end of the Ottoman Empire, a long process that stretched throughout the 19th century, up until the early 20th century. Syria was a very wealthy province of the Ottoman Empire, and by the end of the 19th century it included Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and parts of Iraq. After 1918, the British and the French split the province into the individual countries we have in the region today. Now ISIS seems to be trying to restore the integrity of the old Syrian province.

The other thing I told them is that there is a historical template for the current refugee crisis. In 1912 and 1913, there was a massive population movement in the Balkans – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people. Several thousands died. The Balkans had for several centuries been of geopolitical interest to the Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Russian empires. Several countries in the region were under Ottoman rule by the start of the wars in 1912-1913. The refugees that have arrived in Europe now number about 250,000 to 300,000 – much fewer than the hundreds of thousands that were moving all over the Balkans just before the First World War. So Europe has seen this before, but there seems to be no greater level of sophistication in dealing with the refugees now than there was in 1913.

Could the Syrian refugee crisis have been prevented? 
Definitely. When the trouble started in 2011, eight million Syrians were displaced, both internally and externally. Of the externally displaced, four million found themselves in Turkey and Jordan alone. The length of time that it was taking to process these refugees in Turkey and Jordan was so long that a whispering went around the camps that it was actually quicker to get refugee status in Western Europe than in Turkey or Jordan.

Europe should have known there was trouble coming. It was clear that Jordan and Turkey did not have the capacity to process the many refugees. The UN Refugee Agency is not only underfunded but infrastructurally incapable of coping with the scale of the crisis. In the longer view, the crisis might have been prevented by the non-intervention of Western powers in Middle East affairs.

And by this I am not only referring to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Russia’s earlier occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. It is the Russian misadventures in Afghanistan that first produced the template for Muslim fighters warring against "infidel" occupying armies. And it is this template that was reproduced in Iraq and that ISIS has extended into Syria.

Canada has pledged to admit 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015. Is this good for the country? 
Studies show that refugees do impose an economic burden in the short term, but in the long term, 19 out of 20 refugees are success stories. When you start thinking long-term, admitting refugees can only be a plus. Canada has a labour shortage. So this is actually a time to solve two problems at once. Get them into the system, find jobs for them. Of course, many people are worried that some of these refugees may be importing violence. But the real potential for conflict is within the refugee community itself. Refugees sometimes import the conflict to their new home. Therefore, mechanisms for creating intracommunal harmony should be a priority for the Canadian government. Once there is intracommunal harmony, the problem of such communities becoming seedbeds for terrorists will be ameliorated.

You’re a renowned English literature scholar. What’s the connection between English literature and diaspora studies?
In my mind, literature and diaspora studies are inseparable because at the heart of both is the concept of mobility. One of my areas of interest is postcolonial studies – studies of empire, of post-imperial formations, of the relationship of the West and the rest of the world and so on. One of the things that kept coming up was the impact of all these major changes in the world on minorities, and often these minorities are on the move.

At first I did not see the connection between diaspora studies and my earlier interests in postcolonial literary studies. But once the question of mobility came to me via my study and teaching of diaspora and transnational studies I was forced to interpret literature in new ways. So now I read literature from the perspective of mobility; who is moving, why, what are their means of locomotion and what are the enigmas of both arrival and departure that inflect personal and collective identities.


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