As Syrian Refugees Reach Canada, Many Are Pitching In
Canada's new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrians within a matter of months, but it's not just his government that's handling the massive task of resettling the refugees.
Across Canada, churches, communities and businesses are all pitching in, as are many individuals, who are privately sponsoring Syrian families and covering most of their needs for the first year.
Since Nov. 4, Canada has accepted 1,608 Syrian refugees. By comparison, the U.S. has accepted 2,547 Syrian refugees since that country's civil war began in 2011, according to State Department figures.
Janet Howitt is part of a church group in Kitchener, Ontario, that is sponsoring a Syrian family of five who fled their home in Aleppo because of the war. The family spent three years in Lebanon before flying to Canada two months ago.
"For their first year in Canada, you are responsible for all of their living expenses, for settling them, if you will, orientation support, for helping them get into school or into work, supporting them in every way," Howitt explains.
In her case, that responsibility began with picking up the Syrian family from the Toronto airport.
"We had a sign that said 'Welcome' in English and Arabic, and their names," Howitt says. "You could just visibly see their body posture change a bit, lift up a little bit, smile, you know, you're here, somebody is here."
The woman in the Syrian family says she was filled with doubt during the trip from Lebanon.
"All the way in the airplane, I was blaming my husband, asking him why did we do this, we don't know where we are going and we have these small children," says the woman, who asked that NPR not use her name or take photos because she's scared for relatives still in Syria. "We don't know what is waiting for us in Canada."
The Syrian family now lives in Kitchener, about 90 miles west of Toronto. "For us, every day is new people, new values and new learning ... it's amazing," the woman says. "I am so happy here and feel like I want to encourage everyone to come to Canada who is now a refugee and seeking a safe place."
Their modest, two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment is paid for by Howitt's church group. The Canadian government provides the refugees with health care, transportation and English lessons for their first year in the country.
Canada's private sponsorship program was created in the late 1970s, when the country resettled 60,000 refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.
Although recent attacks in the U.S. have made Syrian resettlement a hot security issue, in Canada, Trudeau's government was elected on assurances that it could resettle refugees safely. The government says there are several rounds of screening before a refugee boards a plane.
Lifeline Syria, a nonprofit that helps resettle privately sponsored refugees in Canada, was created in June with the goal of bringing in 1,000 Syrians in two years.
The number of Canadians contacting Lifeline Syria and offering to help has only increased since September, when a photo appeared in news outlets across the world of a lifeless 3-year-old Syrian boy who had washed up on a Turkish beach. The family of the boy, Alan Kurdi, had applied — and was turned down — for Canadian asylum.
"I remember when the photo came out, I was in a board meeting and I started to get all these emails," says Alexandra Kotyk, Lifeline Syria's project director. "And I started talking to my staff and they said the phones [were] ringing off the hook. We think we got 1,400 emails in two days of people just saying, 'How can I help?' "
Brad Watson and Rachel D'Aguilar, part of a neighborhood association in Kitchener that is sponsoring refugees, were among those who wanted to help after seeing the picture of the boy. Watson says he was also motivated because he felt the previous Canadian government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wasn't doing enough to help.
"It was like, 'Well, if our government won't do it, then we will,'" Watson says. "This seemed very clear, this seems like the right thing to do and we'll do it."
Their neighborhood association has raised more than the minimum of $25,000 that the government requires of sponsors, and furniture and clothing donations have poured in. D'Aguilar says she's running from one meeting to the next in preparation for the refugee family's arrival.
D'Aguilar says they're putting together a handbook in Arabic with information including local bus routes and how to set the thermostat in their new home.
Rick Cober Bauman, the executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee in Ontario, which helps resettle refugees, says the job is easier because the federal government is providing resources.
"It couldn't be driven by a government target alone," he says. "It needs to have many, many communities who are willingly and joyfully stepping up and saying, 'We want to be part of making it happen.'"
Thousands of Canadians have signed up to privately sponsor the Syrians via everything from PTAs to dog-walking groups. Major companies also want to take part.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a couple of dozen lawyers from all kinds of practices gathered on the 30th floor of an office tower in downtown Toronto. They were there to learn from immigration lawyer Jackie Swaizland about the most basic step in refugee cases — how to fill out a permanent residency status application form.
Swaizland and a colleague created these training sessions a couple of months ago, and soon were flooded with calls from lawyers across the country volunteering to work pro bono.
"We went from about 110 lawyers to almost 1,000 that we have today," she says.
Air Canada offered to help fly the Syrians from camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Meanwhile, Canadian doctors are organizing health clinics in hospitals and other health facilities.
Mario Calla, the director of Costi, a nonprofit organization contracted by the Canadian government to help resettle refugees, says he's never seen such an outpouring of help in the 28 years he's been working with refugees.
The biggest challenge is housing, he says. There was concern when the government initially said it wanted all 25,000 Syrian refugees resettled by the end of December.
Calla says there were plans to house the refugees at military bases and on cruise ships. But now that the government has extended the deadline to the end of February, local refugee centers will be able to absorb the newcomers.
Cober Bauman, with the Mennonite Central Committee, says overall, Canadians are supportive. But it's not a unanimous sentiment.
"There are also lots of people struggling on the margins economically in Canada who have to be asking why [there is] this groundswell of support for someone we don't know, when there are many people struggling literally in [our] neighborhoods and in our own communities," he says.
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