Q&A: Jim Estill, who’s sponsoring 58 Syrian refugee families, on what’s next

Q&A: Jim Estill, who’s sponsoring 58 Syrian refugee families, on what’s next

Since the summer of 2015, Danby CEO Jim Estill has brought 47 Syrian refugee families to Guelph, and more are on the way. This month, he received the Order of Ontario and was the subject of a Toronto Life feature. We asked him about his newfound fame and what's changed since we last spoke to him

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 Photograph by Dave Gillespie

Your story was on the front page of Reddit yesterday. How does it feel to go viral?
I’ve been called by at least a dozen publications, including Al Jazeera, BBC, and the Guardian, as well as little radio stations in the middle of nowhere. It was all over Facebook. I’ve had about a hundred emails. It’s been a ride.

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I guess it’s good news for the project.
Exactly. That’s the upside.

Is there a downside?
It’s kind of weird. I shouldn’t be the story. It should be: we have a humanitarian crisis, step up and do something, guys. But it’s okay. I think there are a lot of people who should think, “I can do that.” There isn’t a city in Canada without a company the size of Danby. There are hundreds in Toronto. I’m hoping one of them reads it and says, “Jim does 50. I’m going to do 100.” Ha. I want it to be a race. I guess the other downside is that you always have detractors. People who don’t believe in what I’m doing and want to flame me a little bit. But in Canada, it’s pretty positive. In the United States, it’s less positive. After all, Trump did get in.

Have more people arrived since Toronto Life published the story?
Yeah, a lot of people. We’re now at 47 families, up from 38 in the article. We had five come last week, and two more this week. They’re coming fast and furious. The other thing is that I have a lot of people lined up to billet, but nobody wants to billet over Christmas. I get it, it’s a family time—it would be kind of weird to have another family with you while you’re celebrating Christmas.

So do you need volunteers to host people in their homes right now?
We’re at an equilibrium. The family I was billeting moved into their own apartment on Friday, and now I may have to take another family. It’s all good. Billeting with host families helps refugees adjust. By the time they move into their own apartment, they’re more settled and more independent: buying their own groceries, doing their own doctor appointments. The volunteers can be a problem sometimes; they like to keep coddling people.

What do you do if the refugees aren’t self-sufficient after the sponsorship year is over?
If people are not financially independent after a year, we have Ontario Works. They don’t live on the street. Also, by that time, the mentors become friends. Those relationships will continue. All the volunteers are charitable people. I know nobody is going to be starving in the street. Also, the refugees help each other. When we move a family into a new apartment, it’s all refugee volunteers helping.

What about the people who are still waiting to be sponsored?
We have 11 more families still to come in. We’re going to work on it in the New Year. We’re working on some family reunifications right now.

The article mentions a Dollar Store that you bought for one of the refugees to run. Have you set up any other businesses lately?
The Dollar Store is still on the docket. We have a tailor shop opening in January. That one is done. We have one guy running a pizza business out of the mosque, because they have a commercial kitchen. We’re looking for a restaurant to rent. The beauty of a restaurant is that it would employ a lot of people—kitchen staff, servers—and it would absorb people on evenings and weekends.

Is the project keeping you busy over the holidays?
My wife’s in Ottawa right now, so I’ve been out visiting the refugees every night. When you have 47 families here, even if you visit two families a night, it takes you a month to visit everybody. Just to say hi takes a long time. They all want to have tea. They all think I’m too thin so they want to feed me.

You received the Order of Ontario last week, and you recently got a shout-out from Chris Hadfield. How does that feel?
It’s good. It is an honour. But I don’t see why everybody’s making such a big deal about this. I guess it’s good if it makes others say, “I want to get an Order of Ontario.” Well, then go out and do something.