Taking refuge in Toronto

Taking refuge in Toronto

Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford
Photograph by Christopher Wahl

My friend Kate Bate runs a small design and production studio downtown. She’s also the mother of two school-age girls and doesn’t have much spare time in her schedule. But last year, when she heard there were hundreds of government-sponsored Syrian refugees living in Toronto hotels, she wanted to do something to help. She and a few friends showed up at the Super 8 on Spadina and at Studio 6 on Grange Avenue to bring clothes and toys to the refugees.

Kate and her crew coordinated with the settlement agencies to take the refugees to medical appointments, organize soccer games for their kids and help find them proper housing. By the time all of the refugees had moved into apartments, Kate had a personal connection to 29 families—and she knew that they were going to need a lot more help getting settled.

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In late November, with several other volunteers, she started an organization called Together Project, which matches government-sponsored refugee families with welcome groups of roughly five people per family. They don’t give refugees money; they offer their time, attention and friendship. They help refugees practise English, show them how the TTC works and assist in dozens of other day-to-day needs.

Together Project is one of several grassroots volunteer groups that have cropped up in Toronto in the past year to support new arrivals. Newcomer Kitchen is a program that brings together Syrian refugees to cook once a week, then sells the resulting dishes, allowing the participants a chance to socialize and earn some money. Three Syrian-Canadians created the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project to help newcomers find work. Mes Amis Canada started as a group of Torontonians who would collect donated stuff—car seats, winter boots, cutlery and other essentials—to distribute to refugees. Now it’s also a Facebook group of thousands that shares information about services for refugees. Group members exchange tips on how to find Arabic-speaking doctors, post notices about free eye-exam clinics and track down used strollers. The feed is a chronicle of small, unheralded acts of kindness—someone donating a space heater, someone driving across town to an appointment, someone offering translation skills.

In Guelph, the whole city has been swept up in the enterprise of settling refugees. There, a Canadian businessman named Jim Estill has personally pledged more than $1.5 million to bring in some 200 refugees. He has enlisted the support of pretty much every church, mosque, synagogue and community organization in the vicinity. As Mark Mann details in his fascinating story on page 56, Estill is doing extraordinary things: he’s not only employing the refugees he has sponsored but also, in a couple of cases, setting them up with their own small businesses.

Estill knows Canada’s refugee program will only be considered successful if our newcomers thrive here—and, after the American election, people outside Canada are watching our performance on this front closely. My friend Kate regularly hears from foreigners who are curious about the way ordinary Torontonians are stepping up to help Syrians. When Norway’s minister of immigration and integration visited Toronto, Kate was part of a small group to meet with her. As Kate told me, “The eyes of the whole world are on us now.”

Sarah Fulford is the editor of Toronto Life. She can be found on Twitter @sarah_fulford.