As Ahmed Hussen walked the grounds of some of the world's largest Syrian refugee camps last month, everything came full circle. Welcomed into the makeshift homes of residents, he spoke to them not only as Canada's Immigration Minister, but as a former refugee who had once been in their shoes, forced out of his home with nowhere to go.
Mr. Hussen made his first trip as minister to the Middle East from May 17 to 27 – it was not publicized for security reasons – and visited two of Jordan's largest refugee camps: Zaatari and Azraq. He said he had an instant connection with the refugees he met, having been through a similar experience when he fled Somalia's civil war with his family in the early 1990s and spent days completely exposed in the East African wilderness.
"I'm blessed to relate to these individuals because I can relate to them on a visceral level. If you haven't been through that, it's hard to relate," Mr. Hussen said in an interview with The Globe and Mail after his trip.
Canada has resettled tens of thousands of Syrian refugees since November, 2015, fulfilling a key Liberal election promise. Canada is also involved in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, providing more than 800 troops, a surveillance plane, refuelling aircraft and helicopters to the fight.
Mr. Hussen travelled to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to promote Canada's immigration interests with leaders and stakeholders. In Jordan, he met with King Abdullah and his wife Queen Rania to express gratitude to their country for welcoming one million Syrians since the crisis began five years ago.
In a speech to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, held in Jordan, Mr. Hussen emphasized the need for countries around the world to share the burden of resettling Syrian refugees. Canada has accepted more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since the end of 2015, with more than 11,000 from Jordan.
"We can't take everyone. Jordan can't take everyone. More countries have to come to the resettlement table and offer more spaces, and one of the ways we are encouraging them to do that is to adopt our private-sponsorship model."
In the UAE, the minister got to see firsthand how Canada's private refugee-sponsorship system is being exported to other countries. According to Mr. Hussen, UAE officials travelled to Canada a year-and-a-half ago to learn about the system and implemented it shortly afterward, resettling 15,000 refugees under the program to date.
He also met with the UAE's minister for higher education, where he promoted Canada as an educational destination for Emirati students. He said the minister agreed to add Canadian universities to a list of postsecondary institutions Emirati students can attend with full scholarship from the UAE government. Mr. Hussen said it's now up to Canada to market itself to international students and speed up visa processing for them.
"Part of the issue is they're [UAE officials] saying, 'Well our international students, some of them want to come to Canada, but they're like it takes too long to process an international student visa, so I'll go to the U.K.,'" Mr. Hussen said.
"[Canada] can do better."
Mr. Hussen also visited Canada's visa processing centre in Cairo, which has been dealing with backlogs and long waiting times, mainly because of the unstable security situation in Egypt.
He said refugees, many of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea, have trouble getting required medical and security checks because they are often blocked by attacks in and around the Egyptian capital. For instance, on May 26, masked gunmen attacked a group of Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery south of Cairo, killing 29 and wounding 24. Delays draw out the application processing times in Egypt, which are up to 64 months for privately sponsored refugees.
The minister said it was beneficial to see what is causing the delays in the Cairo office that he has heard so much about from Ottawa.
"When you go there and talk to the staff and then you actually go into the bowels of the beast … it gives you an appreciation, A) of what they're going through and B) how you can help that particular visa office."
He added that the government is having trouble recruiting Canadian visa officers for Cairo, who don't want to work there because of the security situation.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the government must provide more resources for visa processing in backed-up centres and increase immigration numbers to accommodate more newcomers, including international students.
"International students are an important demographic, especially in an environment where we have an aging population," Ms. Kwan said.
"In that context, we need to rely on the immigrant population."
Neither Ms. Kwan nor Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel knew about Mr. Hussen's trip. Ms. Rempel said the minister's office has been quiet or completely silent on a number of matters – something that she finds frustrating, particularly as Parliament prepares to rise for the summer in the coming weeks.
For instance, she said she has no idea where Mr. Hussen stands on a recent Federal Court ruling that the government's citizenship-revocation process is unfair. The Liberals only have eight days left to appeal the decision or be forced to reinstate hearings for individuals whose citizenship revocation was based on fraud; the previous Conservative government removed the hearing process.
"The minister has a lot of accountability to the House for several decisions that need to be made before we rise for the summer," Ms. Rempel said. "We've heard nothing."
With a report from Reuters