Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor from Gaza who lost three of his daughters and a niece to an Israeli army shell that hit his family’s home in the final days of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, gained Canadian citizenship this past Thursday.
Also Thursday, the first planeload of Syrian refugees from among the 25,000 Canada has committed to take in by February, landed in Toronto, where Abuelaish lives with his five surviving children, ages 13 to 24.
The coincidence did not go unnoticed by Abuelaish, who had to wait six years to gain Canadian citizenship since his arrival in the country the same year his daughters were killed; his wife had died of cancer less than a year previous to that loss.
Abuelaish, an OB/GYN with a masters degree in public health who was the first Palestinian physician to work in Israeli hospitals, entered Canada on a work visa and not as a refugee. Nonetheless, he identifies strongly with the Syrian refugees’ desperate desire to get away from an area of the world rife with sectarian violence.
“Canada is not built on color, race, religion or ethnicity. It’s a country of values, a place with good people. It is an incubator for humanity. It is a country concerned with the wellbeing of people, and that is something needed in the world,” he told The Times of Israel.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office acknowledged on February 4, 2009, that a Golani infantry force, under fire and believing it had seen Hamas surveillance “spotters” in the vicinity of Abuelaish’s home, had radioed in a request for tank fire. The IDF, the report said, was “saddened by the harm caused” to the family, but contended that “the forces’ action and the decision to fire towards the building were reasonable.”
Abuelaish, who is an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said that becoming a Canadian citizen, together with his children, meant a great deal to him.
‘Non-Muslims must not judge or label bad human behavior as Muslim. And at the same time, it is the responsibility of Muslims to show that the values of Islam are good’
“I felt the beauty of the world, I felt dignity,” he said of the moment he took the citizenship oath.
Abuelaish is confident that the Syrian refugees will settle in well in his new country.
“Canada is a big land and the people here have big hearts. Canada has lots of experience with immigrants. No one is a stranger and everyone is friendly. More than 160 languages are spoken in Toronto,” he said of the diversity of his adopted city.
Abuelaish has been impressed by the way in which the Canadian government under new prime minister Justin Trudeau is engaging with the Syrian refugee crisis, which has seen more than four million people displaced since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
“Canada and its new leadership walks the talk,” he said.
With regard to what is going on south of the Canadian border in the United States with regard to anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-refugee positions, Abuelaish said he considered the politicization of religion a way to avoid doing the right thing.
“Non-Muslims must not judge or label bad human behavior as Muslim. And at the same time, it is the responsibility of Muslims to show that the values of Islam are good. Muslims must demonstrate mercy, kindness, tolerance, equality and justice for all,” he said.
‘I will remain a Palestinian. That’s what’s so great about being a Canadian’
Abuelaish, who started a foundation in his daughters’ memory and travels the world preaching peace and conflict resolution, is preparing to take his first trip using his new Canadian passport, which he expects to receive shortly. It happens to be a visit later this month to Israel, where he has some speaking engagements lined up.
Abuelaish expressed hope that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take a page from Canada’s book when it comes to integrating people of all backgrounds.
“I’d like to see him implement citizenship and equality for all people living in the land. It should be a state for all the people there to live together jointly as good neighbors,” he said, desccribing a one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
A proud new Canadian, Abuelaish said he would always be very attached to his Middle Eastern roots.
“I will remain a Palestinian. That’s what’s so great about being a Canadian,” he said.
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.