Kellie Leitch, the Canadian firebrand who lost her recent effort to lead the Conservative Party, has ignited a bit of a firestorm with her online sharing of a column about a Syrian refugee who beat his wife with a hockey stick.
“A battered wife and a bloodied hockey stick. That’s the legacy of Trudeau’s Syrian refugee program,” Ms. Leitch said on Twitter, quoting from the column in The Toronto Sun, a populist tabloid.
The response was swift and sharp, as many Canadians criticized her for using an isolated domestic violence case to condemn what is widely seen as a successful humanitarian effort.
Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s immigration minister, who himself came to Canada as a refugee from Somalia, called her statement as reprehensible as the stick-wielding husband. Alberta’s former deputy premier, Thomas Lukaszuk, said on Twitter that Ms. Leitch’s comment was “despicable.”
Some far-right immigration opponents praised her tweet and pointed to the episode as evidence that Canada’s growing multiculturalism was wrongheaded.
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The refugee, Mohamad Rafia, pleaded guilty to causing bodily harm and uttering threats. He said he did not realize that beating one’s wife was illegal in Canada, according to Abdelhaq M. Hamza, a physics professor at the University of New Brunswick, who acted as Mr. Rafia’s interpreter in court. “Why didn’t they explain the law when we first came?” Mr. Rafia asked before he was sentenced this month to time served and a year’s probation.
That seemed to support Ms. Leitch’s largely discredited “Canadian values” campaign, which would screen immigrants for un-Canadian attitudes or beliefs.
But behind the debate is a complex tale.
Mr. Rafia and his wife, Raghda Aldndal, were the subject of a sensitive and probing documentary about Canada’s Syrian refugees, produced by two Australian filmmakers last year. The film, “Canada’s Open House,” gives an unusual opportunity to look more deeply into the case.
Dawn Burke, chairwoman of the group that sponsored the Rafia family in the small town of Chipman, New Brunswick, said she used interpreters multiple times to explain Canadian laws, including those against domestic violence, to Mr. Rafia.
The larger issue that the case illustrates, said one of the filmmakers, Amos Roberts, is the difficulty that many older refugees, particularly men, face in adapting to new lives in a foreign culture. More than 40,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Canada, almost half of them sponsored privately by ordinary citizens like Ms. Burke.
“To expect new immigrants, especially refugees, to adapt within a year or two is mind-boggling,” said Professor Hamza, the interpreter.
The Rafia family fled Syria for Jordan about five years ago after two of Mr. Rafia’s brothers were executed, according to Ms. Burke. They arrived in Chipman, and Ms. Aldndal quickly found friends, as did the children through school. But the documentary shows Mr. Rafia growing increasingly discontented and frustrated as his familial authority ebbs.
“You feel like a stranger,” Mr. Rafia said in the documentary, which was made shortly after the family’s arrival. “Guantánamo Bay is a prison on an island. It’s the same here.”
The couple’s arranged marriage was already troubled in Syria, and Mr. Rafia admitted early on that he had beaten his wife in the past, Ms. Burke said.
“We made it very clear that he was not allowed to hit his wife,” she added.
The family eventually moved to Fredericton, a city where they would be closer to a Syrian community and jobs were more plentiful. But the marriage did not improve and on May 18, Ms. Aldndal showed up at a Fredericton hospital with injuries from a beating. Mr. Rafia was arrested and pleaded guilty on May 26.
Right-leaning media picked up the story, accusing Canadian liberals of welcoming wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But few who understand the case see it as an indictment of Canada’s multicultural immigration policies or its progressive refugee outreach. “It’s not a legacy. It’s an exception,” Ms. Burke said, referring to the line that Ms. Leitch posted.
Mr. Roberts, the filmmaker, said it was “horrifying to see this one incident become a useful bit of propaganda” for anti-immigration forces.