MONTREAL — Several weeks ago, Danielle Létourneau, a Quebec actress, found herself in her kitchen reading on social media some disturbing reactions to the Paris terrorist attacks and the Canadian government’s decision to welcome at least 25,000 Syrian refugees over the next few months.
“I began reading comments that were paranoid and illogical, saying that they [the Syrians] were potentially terrorists coming to Canada,” she recalled. “I found it completely irrational and not worthy of Canadians. I felt like I didn’t recognize myself as a citizen.”
She began thinking about what she could do to help reverse what she saw as a dangerous backlash that could scuttle the government’s refugee settlement plans.
She came up with the unlikely idea of knitting 25,000 wool tuques — winter caps — to be presented as a welcoming gift for every refugee.
“Every baby born in Quebec is given a little tuque in the hospital so that it doesn’t get cold,” she said. “They are knitted by volunteers, often in old-age homes. It’s symbolic. It represents a welcoming into the world. For the refugees, it’s like a welcome to you, to your new home. It’s like saying they have come into the world again, with us.”
The idea caught on through social media, and within days, Canadians had formed knitting circles to meet the target. They set up 127 depots to receive the iconic tasseled wool hats Canadians wear to protect themselves from their main enemy — the cold.
The 25,000-tuques campaign is but a small reflection of the huge outpouring of support for Syrian refugees as they began arriving last week in Canada. While Americans debate closing their borders to Muslims and refugees, Canadians are rolling out the red carpet.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a nonprofit umbrella group that supports the settlement of newcomers, said its member organizations — almost 500 — have been swamped with calls from people willing to volunteer.
Businesses, the Canadian Labor Congress, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, small towns and large cities are all contributing clothing, furniture and financial support to help settle Canada’s most recent influx of refugees.
While a few Conservative politicians raised security concerns after the Paris terrorist attacks, these fears have not had much impact on the refugee plans. The Liberal government that took office in early November has refused to budge on its campaign promise to receive the newcomers, although it did extend the time frame in which it would receive the 25,000 refugees by two months, to the end of February.
Early Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the first plane of refugees arriving under the plan, and another jet arrived Saturday night with more. Over the next three months, Canadian military and chartered planes will fly in the rest of the 25,000 refugees from camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
The country is opening its doors primarily to the most vulnerable of the 4.2 million refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war, officials say. These include Muslim families with children, as well as Christians and gays.
Trudeau told Parliament this past week that “resettling refugees demonstrates our commitment to Canadians and to the world. Canada understands that we can and must do more.”
Leaders of refugee organizations in Canada do not express surprise at the outpouring of help for the Syrians.
Canada, they note, has a long history of accepting refugees.
“It’s exactly what Canada is all about,” said Bernie Faber, executive director of the Mosaic Institute in Toronto, which studies refugee and immigration issues. “We are, even more than in America, a country that is built on immigration. We are all the sons and daughters of immigrants from conflicted lands, and we kind of get it.”
The United States has resettled more than 3 million refugees since the mid-1970s. But since the Paris attacks, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, a large number of congressional representatives and governors, most of them Republicans, have called for slowing or stopping the arrival of refugees from Syria and other Arab countries because of security concerns. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country.
In Canada, the newly arriving refugees are granted landed immigrant status, the first major step toward citizenship, and will have access to free child and adult education, social welfare, health care, and housing.
Thirty-six communities across Canada have signed up to accept the government-sponsored refugees and assure a smooth integration.
In addition, Canada’s unique system allows small groups of people (these often involve religious institutions) to sponsor refugees privately. That is expected to bring in another 25,000 for settlement during 2016. These sponsors must pay about $25,000 to finance a refugee family during its first year in Canada.
“Canada prefers to have these services delivered through community organizations rather than through the state,” Dench said.
Ninu Kang, a researcher and communications director at Vancouver’s Mosaic, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees and immigrants settle in British Columbia, said that the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Most of the cities have pulled together various planning organizations, schools, police, health, to organize our community response,” she said. “All of us are getting phone calls from people wanting to donate furniture, offer housing, give clothes. We have had businesses saying, ‘We will give free food.’ We have had developers saying, ‘We will put aside X number of units to settle Syrian refugees.’ That’s what is being played out here in Canada right now.”
Impatient with their own country’s reluctance to accept Syrian refugees, some Americans have joined the Canadian effort.
Michelle Dukich said her church group in Wooster, Ohio, has been knitting for the 25,000-tuques campaign but wants to expand its contribution to refugees in Canada.
“The groups that I started in Wooster went from a dozen people to over 60 people just by word of mouth,” she said. “We would like to be a model for other groups in the U.S. to aid Canada in its effort.”
“At this point, with the political climate in the U.S., you can’t really get refugees here,” said Dukich, who works in human rights data collection. “I personally feel I need to do something now. We will take things across the border to help families settle there, and we are going to collect money, and we will also volunteer.”
Despite Canada’s warm reception of the newcomers, refugee workers are not impressed by what the country has done so far. They are talking about doubling the commitment.
“I think we need a little humility here, because compared to Germany, which is taking in a million refugees in 2015, we’re not doing very much,” Dench said. “Lebanon, with over a million [refugees], is a tiny country compared to Canada. We’ve got this wonderful willingness, but I’ve heard so many stories from Lebanon, for example, about how many Lebanese were opening their homes and welcoming so many Syrian refugees. The numbers are just so, so much more than in Canada.”