A one-stop shop to co-ordinate refugee sponsorship efforts and a campaign to raise money to fund those efforts were unveiled at Ottawa City Hall on Thursday night to a crowd of hundreds of people eager to help.
Every seat was filled in city council chambers as the programs, called Refugee 613 and United for Refugees, were announced.
Refugee 613 was created by community groups and residents to co-ordinate resettlement efforts and collect and disseminate information about refugee resettlement. It aims to be the first place people turn to for more information if they want to help, and to give residents several ways to do so.
"We need to get our ducks in a row and be ready," said Louisa Taylor, the co-founder and director of the fledgling Refugee613.
The volunteer-run group has not yet set a target for how many refugees the community should aim to help settle in Ottawa, Taylor said, adding a lot will depend on the direction taken by the federal government.
"I think there's definitely a sense among people in the sector that in 2017 we can do better than 4,000," said Taylor, referring to the project led by former mayor Marion Dewar to accept refugees from Vietnam a generation ago.
"It's a different environment. We have settlement agencies. We didn't have settlement agencies in 1979."
United for Refugees, overseen by United Way Ottawa and the Community Foundation of Ottawa, Refugee 613 and others, will focus its efforts on raising money to support refugee sponsorship.
"This year I ask you to dig deeper," Mayor Jim Watson told the citizens assembled in council chambers. "Please do not redirect funds from the United Way. They continue to need the funds in our community, but we ask you to dig a little deeper to go that extra mile to help us address this most pressing humanitarian crisis in recent history."
In addition, the University of Ottawa's Refugee Hub has brought together a group of about 50 lawyers, law students and sponsorship specialists to work pro-bono in a Refugee Sponsorship Support Program.
Their goal is to match trained lawyers with groups of people hoping to sponsor refugees in order to steer them through the complicated process.
Residents move through slow process
Resident Cathryn Fortier, who attended the Thursday night information session, is part of a group of five moving slowly through the process of trying to sponsor refugees.
She made the decision to sponsor refugees instead of taking a trip to celebrate a milestone birthday.
"I was thinking of that about the same time as all this arose, and decided that I would put my money elsewhere," Fortier said. "I just think that when you live with such privilege, it was really nice to be able to consider doing something for some other people who are certainly at the other end of the spectrum."
Shawana Durrani, another resident, came to the session to hear about the initiatives but isn't sure whether they're addressing the problem.
"I'm pulled two ways on this. I want to help the refugees but I also think that we need to actually have the Syrian government ... forced to sit down and have peace talks," Durrani said.
"I think just bringing them over here is not the answer. I'm not saying I don't want to help them, I definitely want to help them, but I think maybe giving money to the camps that are already set up in Turkey and the other countries around there, and getting the al-Assad government to settle it and get the people back to their country, I would lean more that way."