A Toronto couple cancelled plans for a big, expensive wedding and asked guests at their small city hall ceremony to donate money in lieu of gifts — all to help them raise thousands of dollars to sponsor a family of Syrian refugees.

Samantha Jackson and Farzin Yousefian were planning a traditional wedding for March with all the trimmings, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. They had already booked a venue, hired caterers, and invited family and friends.

In September, they saw the pictures of three-year-old Alan Kurdi's lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach — an image that put a global spotlight on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Jackson and Yousefian have now put the wedding funds toward helping a Syrian family of four.

"We thought this really has to be an opportunity for us to really use our wedding as a platform, as a way to make a difference alongside our friends and family in what has obviously become an absolutely outstanding humanitarian crisis," Jackson told CBC News.

'A better way'

Jackson, a PhD student at Ryerson University, studies refugee health-care policy and volunteers with the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, which raises funds to sponsor refugees in Toronto. 

While planning their wedding, she and Yousefian often talked about the global refugee crisis and wondered if they could help. 

"When there's such a dire situation, it's easy to become overwhelmed about thinking of ways to contribute," Yousefian said.

"We just thought, 'Wait a second, there's a better way to do this. Given the circumstances, we need to turn the focus on the crisis and raise awareness and funds.'"

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Newlyweds Jackson and Yousefian hold up a sign from Ryerson Lifeline Syria Challenge. Along with the couple, from left to right, are volunteers Alexandra Kotyk, Erin Roach, Ratna Omidvar, Wendy Cukier and Krysten Connely. (Jim Martin/Handout)

The couple tied the knot last month. 

"I think the best part about this whole process has been seeing people's reactions, and then seeing just how thrilled they are for the idea and how excited they are about finding a way to contribute as well and to help us contribute," Yousefian said.

"We owe it all to our friends and family. Without them, this really couldn't have happened a short time frame."

The two, with their wedding funds and the donations from family and friends, have raised $17,500 of the $27,000 needed to sponsor the family of four.

Online donations to the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge can still be made, by selecting the couple's names from the drop-down menu. 

"The generosity of our friends and family and people we don't even know has been incredible," Jackson said. "We're hoping now, with the renewed interest in the story and everything that's been happening … to really reach our goal soon."

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Jackson and Yousefian pose with their friends outside Toronto city hall after their wedding last month. (Jim Martin/Handout)

With files from Grant Linton