Welcome home: Unions exist to help everyone – including a Syrian family seeking safety in Alberta

The following guest opinion column was published in the Edmonton Journal on Jan. 3, 2017. The family, originally expected to arrive in October, finally made it to Calgary after Christmas. Photographed above is the family of four being welcomed by HSAA members and supporters.

This week, a Syrian refugee family of four arrives in Alberta to begin a new, safe life – thanks to a union.

The family left Damascus when bombs and rockets began falling in their community as the war between the Syrian government and rebels heated up. They left because they feared being killed by both sides.

Since then, their lives as refugees have been more difficult than most of us can imagine. They were on the move within Syria for more than a year, sometimes sleeping on the ground in winter. They spent weeks at the border with Lebanon before being allowed to enter as refugees, to settle in a crowded refugee centre.

Tragically, the family lost a daughter who was born in the refugee camp, due to a lack of proper medication and poor nutrition.

Later, the family was allowed to leave the refugee centre and moved into a basement, but job opportunities were limited. No matter what qualifications a refugee holds in Lebanon, the only work available is at the lowest wages, such as janitorial or construction work. Despite Lebanon’s willingness to accept refugees on a massive scale, Syrians in the country are continually harassed verbally and physically.

Now, after a year of work by members of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), our sponsorship of this family has been approved by the federal government. Our family is a 33-year-old who worked as a truck driver; his 27-year-old wife who had to abandon her studies to become an architect because of the war; and their two sons, aged five-and-a-half and two-and-a-half.

They arrive in Calgary on Thursday, December 29, to begin a new life, one filled with hope instead of fear. HSAA has found them a home – the first real, safe home they will have had since the war began.

The union has approved spending $27,000 from its Humanitarian Fund on sponsoring this family of future Canadians.

Some might ask: Why?

Why is this an appropriate activity for a union? Why is this an appropriate way to spend the union dues paid by our hard-working members? Why have we spent time
and resources on this effort?

HSAA could have done nothing. Or it could have simply written a cheque to an aid organization and let someone else do the work. But we chose to be involved, to actively participate in saving a family.

We did this because at HSAA, we believe that unions exist to help everyone, not just their own members. We hold social justice as a core value – and that value transcends provincial and national borders. Our Humanitarian Fund was created after the tsunami of 2004 and has been used to help victims of that natural disaster and victims of a typhoon in the Philippines and an earthquake in Nepal. Closer to home, we have helped fire and flood victims in Alberta.

Albertans trust the 25,000 skilled health-care professionals who belong to HSAA to save their lives, to treat their injuries and cure their illnesses.

Helping out this family of refugees, of new Albertans, is a natural extension of what we do at work every day in every corner of this province.

We also do this because we know that this family will be a net gain for Alberta and Canada, even though they arrive in tough economic times. They will work hard and become valuable members of our society.

We do this because unions believe in solidarity – and solidarity means helping each other. Most of all, we do this because leaving people to suffer the horrors of war is not the Albertan way, the Canadian way or the HSAA way.