Syrian Refugee Sponsorship: Community Organizing from the Heart

Syria refugee sponsorship community organizing

It’s our pleasure to introduce today’s guest Danielle Young, a lawyer and community advocate who spearheaded The East End Friends Syrian Refugee Resettlement Project, a community organizing effort to privately sponsor Syrian refugees. Here is our interview with Danielle, on the group’s inception, the motivation behind it, and how everyone has a part to play in Canada’s response to the war in Syria.

Plenty:  What does private sponsorship of a Syrian refugee family mean?

DY:  The Canadian government permits private organizations or groups to sponsor refugees. This can be done directly, but in our case, we applied through Lifeline Syria, which assists and trains sponsor groups as they welcome refugees and help them settle to Canada.

A sponsor’s basic responsibilities include providing refugees with care, lodging, settlement assistance and support for 12 months after the refugee’s arrival in Canada or until the refugee becomes self-sufficient, whichever comes first. (See Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s website for more details)

P:  What inspired you personally to get involved?

DY:  My husband, Jason Kenemy, and I had been watching the war in Syria with horror the past few years but it was the image of three year old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach in Greece that solidified our resolve to do something. That night in our kitchen, after putting our own three small kids to bed, we agreed we could not stand by in the face of so much suffering and not take action. I immediately started researching how we could sponsor a family and looking into our own finances to help cover expenses. Then I texted my sister Nicole asking if she would sponsor a family with us – without hesitation she said yes.  What I did not know then was that the same conversation was taking place in kitchens across the country.

We submitted our application to sponsor a refugee family when the government in power was far less welcoming than the current government. The election platform then was focused on divisive and, in my view, racist policies. The government did not represent our views of Canada as a multi-cultural and open country. If the government was not going to bring refugees to Canada we decided we would do it ourselves. We wanted our children to someday look back at what is happening in the world today and know that their parents stood up to help.

P:  How did The East End Friends Syrian Refugee Resettlement Project come to life?

DY:  At first, we joined one of many existing Facebook groups aimed at sponsoring families, but the group grew so large we decided to branch off and sponsor more than one family in our neighbourhood. But I’m quite risk averse, and the idea of sponsoring a family was intimidating. I suspected I could gather financial support from friends; still I had concerns about who would make the time to help the family resettle when they arrived. It was then I reached out to friend and dynamic community advocate Miranda Snyder. She enthusiastically committed herself as co-lead of the effort and by the end of the day had commitments from friends of more than $7,000 towards sponsorship.  She also rallied the support of Boriana Karan, an immigrant to Canada who has been a driving force for fundraising and raising awareness of the project in schools.  Like my husband and I, Miranda and Boriana wanted to be (and are!) examples to their children.

We have a core group of 10 people who signed the commitment on paper, and have a Facebook group with 150 members. At first I knew everyone who joined the group, but then I started getting messages and e-transfers from strangers. Our members are from all walks of life, from retirees, former refugees, recent immigrants, fourth generation Canadians, middle class families, artists, performers, musicians, lawyers, teachers, and university students. They sent funds, offered language training, a week’s worth of groceries, and in-kind donations of furnishings. We also received many offers of “anything you need”.

The generosity has been overwhelming. Sometimes friends would comment in dismay at the backlash over refugee policies in the news, but I knew nothing of it. My own experience was too full of stories of generosity to have space for the negativity of people not willing to pitch in. What I saw were people wanting to be part of something constructive, to welcome new friends to Canada, and to help people looking for a new, safe home for themselves and their families.

P:  What are the goals of your group, and have they changed?

DY:  We needed $27,000 to sponsor a family of four (which covers all expenses for a year plus initial settlement costs), but raised more than $40,000, so we committed to sponsoring a larger family. We are now considering sponsoring a second family through a different organization. Having been through the initial stages once, it would be easier to do again.

P:  What is happening now?

DY:  Lifeline Syria matched our group with a family of five with three children under the age of seven. The family fled Syria and has been in Sudan for more than a year. We have met with the Canadian contact and have begun discussions about the specific needs of the family when they arrive. We continue to gather support, collect in-kind donations, and research services for the family to use upon their arrival.

Syria refugee sponsorship community organizing

Syria refugee sponsorship community organizing

Syria refugee sponsorship community organizing

Danielle’s son’s Grade 1 class creates welcome letters in anticipation of the refugee family’s arrival

P:  What is left to do?

DY:  There is still paperwork to be finalized, but we are optimistic the family will arrive in the next few months. Then it will be all hands on deck as we welcome the family and find appropriate rental accommodation, orient them in the city, set up language training, register the kids in school, assist with job searching, and anything else needed to resettle newcomers from abroad.

P:  Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get involved?

DY:  I would encourage anyone who would like to help to just dig in and do it! So many people tell me how they “wish” they had the time to get involved. I have a full-time job with three kids under 6 and do not feel I have inordinate amounts of down time, but I squeezed it in. We also have single moms with demanding jobs as part of our group. We made the time because to us the benefits of being involved with something positive far outweigh the implications of not getting involved.

Remember that contributions come in all forms.  Some groups run fundraisers for people who are able to provide financial contributions rather than time. Donations do not have to be huge amount of money – $25 can go a long way in supporting a group’s efforts and adds up quickly. Tax receipts are sometimes available depending on a group’s particular arrangements.

Contributions of time and energy can be an hour here or there or a one-off block of time. Lifeline Syria has a map listing all groups so people can locate one close to them. Some people independently organize drives for clothing, toys, and foods, and then donate them to a sponsoring group. (See here and here for examples)

Many groups rely on volunteers who donate their skills and abilities. For example, a person with a van can help move donated furniture one afternoon, a person who can paint might help decorate one of the ‘pop up’ retail spaces that are created to help refugee sponsorship.  There are so many ways that people can get involved, even if it is just an hour.

P:  Where can people wanting to help learn more? 

DY:  There are many great online resources for groups interested in sponsoring a family – here is just a sampling.

Lifeline Syria

Citizen and Immigration Canada’s Welcome Refugees 

Refugee Sponsorship Training Program

Arab Community Centre of Toronto 

Here are two Facebook groups for sponsors which have been essential for sharing information and resources among sponsor groups.

GTA Refugee Assistance Hub 

GTA and Beyond Refugee Sponsors Umbrella Group

Syria refugee sponsorship community organizing

A huge thank you to Danielle Young for taking the time to share her fantastic community organizing efforts with Plenty – we wish you and all sponsoring groups the best while resettling Syrian families.

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