RCMP work to ease fears for both refugees and Canadian police

OTTAWA -- Syrian refugees have received little by way of a formal orientation to Canada before they've arrived.

In their drive to get 25,000 people here in a matter of months, the Liberals put off the detailed customary pre-departure briefings for refugees and instead waited until they landed.

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But one agency decided it could not wait: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Four Mounties were involved last month in an experimental community integration project in Jordan designed to help Syrian refugees and the police force itself.

The unique police engagement strategy was developed to address two issues -- the concerns police officers in Canada have over security screening of refugees, and an ingrained mistrust of authorities by the refugees themselves.

For RCMP Acting Sgt. Lina Dabit and her colleagues, speaking the same language was an immeasurable help in approaching the refugees they met in Jordan.

Crayons and colouring books also helped break the ice with the children.

"They weren't afraid of us because we did speak the language," Dabit said in describing the 20 to 30 daily encounters she and three of her colleagues had with Syrian families they met over a 10 day period in January.

"(And) when the children felt comfortable around us, the parents did as well."

The vast majority of the 25,000 Syrian refugees now in Canada -- the milestone was reached Saturday night -- speak neither English nor French.

The numbers of Arabic-only speakers are highest among government assisted refugees, those whose costs are covered entirely by the government in their first year.

Sam Jaroudi, a civilian RCMP staff member, said most of the families -- especially the parents -- felt very anxious about starting a new life.

The trick, he said, was to reassure them that police in Canada are not to be feared.

"Police officers are your neighbours, hockey coach, soccer coach," Jaroudi explained. "This is the message that we tried to get across in Amman -- that police are approachable."

In Syria, thousands of people have been arbitrarily arrested or detained over the course of the nearly five-year-old civil war.

In the countries now hosting over four million refugees, security agencies are often also a threat. In Lebanon, Syrians can be arrested because their refugee status is not recognized. In Jordan, aid agencies have reported Syrians won't go to the police because they believe they won't be treated fairly.

At first, the Mounties met with refugees before they'd even been accepted into Canada's program.

But the meetings were moved to the airport when, as anxiety levels rose about the move to Canada, some families were refusing to board flights.

RCMP members tried to dispel myths about police benefiting from special privileges in Canada, or whether their children would be taken away from them if confronted by the law.

Back home, there was a quick realization of a need to shake off the very real perception by some Canadian police officers that the Syrians pose a security threat.

Dabit said her fellow officers often had questions about security issues.

"I saw the people that we're bringing in. I saw it with my own eyes. These are families. These are people with children," Dabit said.

"These are people who are no different than any of us."


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