Philanthropists donate $3.5M to help bring almost 700 refugees to Canada

It all happened so fast. Tuesday afternoon, Jennifer Basu and a group of friends met at Vancouver International Airport to welcome the refugee they’d sponsored to come to Canada.

8 philanthropists, led by Vancouver foundation, help sponsors settle 685 people across country

Canada opened up 1,500 spaces for refugees this year under the Blended Visa Office Referred program. (Shutterstock/Fishman64)

It all happened so fast. Tuesday afternoon, Jennifer Basu and a group of friends met at Vancouver International Airport to welcome the refugee they'd sponsored to come to Canada.

Basu said she'd been thinking about sponsoring someone for a while, but it didn't seem like it would be possible for years.

But then she learned that nearly $3.5 million had been donated by philanthropists in the U.S. and Canada to help community groups like hers cover the cost of sponsorship. With that financial help, Basu was able to assemble a group of eight sponsors and bring over a refugee from the Middle East within just two months.

"It's really exciting," Basu told CBC. "There's so many people who are refugees in the world and who need a place to live and are being persecuted. Just knowing that I can contribute and help one person to be in a safe place, for me that's kind of emotional."

The new arrival is one of 685 refugees who will arrive in Canada by the end of the year thanks to the donations. Thirty-seven of those will settle in B.C.

They're part of the Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) program, which allows Canadian sponsor groups to bring in refugees identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than 1,000 unfilled spaces

The program has been around for a few years, but, in 2018, there was a real possibility that hundreds of spaces in the program would go unused.

At the beginning of the year, the federal government opened up 1,500 spaces for refugees through BVOR, but by August, fewer than 500 of those spaces had been filled. Any empty spaces would disappear once the year was out.

That's when Vancouver's Giustra Foundation, along with the U.S.-based Shapiro Foundation and the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub and Jewish Family Services, stepped in and created a fund to help community groups cover the cost to sponsor refugees.

The aim of the fund was ensure that no spaces would go unfilled because of lack of money. It costs about $18,000 for a private sponsor to welcome a family of four through BVOR — the rest of the price tag is covered by the federal government.

With the $3.5 million raised by eight philanthropists, including Vancouver's Aquilini Group and local residents Brian Paes-Braga and Harald and Sharlene Ludwig, groups in 49 communities across the country were able to sponsor refugees.

Vancouver businessman Frank Giustra, founder and president of the Giustra Foundation, said he was "incredibly proud" of the effort.

In a written statement, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen thanked the donors for stepping up.

"We have seen how the generosity of Canadians has changed the lives of refugees for the better and the success of this initiative is a testament to that generosity," Hussen said.