“It is a very sad day for humanity and for us as Canadians. We failed.”
That was the reaction of Vancouver-based small business owner Hisham Wattar, originally from Damascus, Syria, when he heard about the drowned Syrian boy whose image was shared around the world on Wednesday.
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Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was found dead, alongside his five-year-old brother and mother on a beach in Turkey. The family was trying to escape the war-torn town of Kobani in Syria. Their boat, with at least 12 people on board, capsized on their way to Greece.
The photo of Aylan’s body lying face-down in the sand has sparked outrage around the world, prompting questions about how the migrant crisis is being handled and what Canada is doing to help.
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Wattar, who runs Best Falafel on Commercial Drive, has been in Canada for 30 years and says his family is in a similar situation.
He is trying to bring his sister and his two nieces into Canada from Cairo, Egypt, where they have been stuck for three years.
A year ago, he received a letter from Immigration Canada saying their refugee application had been approved, but authorities now say it may take up to 42 months to bring them into Canada.
A month ago, one of Wattar’s nieces considered getting on a smuggler boat to get out of Cairo. Wattar says it took pressure from the entire family to convince her not to do it.
“We told her, at least, you have hope,” he says. “We know it is a long shot, but it is much better than taking a chance and drown somewhere in the Mediterranean.”
The migrant crisis has been escalating in Europe in recent months, with thousands of people paying large amounts of money to be smuggled across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe, which is facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
In 2013, Canada committed to bringing in 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. That goal was not met until March 2015. In January of this year, the federal government committed to resettling a further 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. As of July 27, Global News was told, 1,002 refugees have been accepted.
It is estimated there are more than four million Syrian refugees currently fleeing the war.
In a press conference this morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada will admit more refugees from the region, but must also continue to stand with its allies in the fight against the extremists who are forcing people to flee their homes.
Harper’s government has been criticized by the opposition for not doing enough to help solve the migrant crisis.
“I hope that, as Canadians, we don’t accept this kind of bureaucracy that’s going on with Syrian refugees,” says Wattar. “It is not acceptable by any Canadian standard.”
He says he tried to raise his concerns with the MPs in the North Shore area, where he lives, but he is running out of options.
He is offering to sponsor his sister and nieces, meaning the Canadian government will not be using taxpayer dollars to bring the family into the country.
“We played by the rules,” says Wattar. “We’ve got an approval letter in June 2014, saying we have met all the requirements. So why do I have to wait 42 months for them to come here?”
Wattar says he was devastated when he saw the picture of Aylan’s tiny body lying face down on a Turkish beach.
“It is heartbreaking. I hardly cry, but I was very saddened by this. Humanity has stopped there,” he says. “These are peaceful people. They just want to get on with their lives and raise their kids.”
He says they have been trying to galvanize the Canadian public to pay attention to the refugee crisis happening in Europe, but it has not been easy.
Now that the photo of Aylan is going viral, Wattar hopes the world will open its eyes to the reality of thousands of refugees trying to escape carnage in their homeland.
“Do we have to always wait for someone to die like that and then we act on it? Does it have to come to this for us to realize that this is not right?” he adds.
READ MORE: Will this photo help people grasp the desperation of Syrian refugees?