Metro Morning

What it's like to sponsor Syrians coming to Toronto

Much of the public discussion around refugees has involved how the government would accomplish its goal to resettle 25,000 Syrians. But how exactly does private sponsorship work?

Two private sponsors share the process of bringing Syrian refugees to the city

A migrant man and woman with two children arrive at a refugee camp housing facility Nov. 19, 2015. (Petros Karadjias/The Associated Press)

Much of the public discussion around refugees has involved how the government will accomplish its goal to resettle 25,000 Syrians in Canada. But how exactly does private sponsorship work?

Groups of private citizens are getting ready to help thousands of Syrians find homes and build a new life in Toronto.

Turning refugees to newcomers

Annette Wilde, a member of the First Unitarian Church in Toronto, is working to bring 10 families to Toronto and Kingston with two families already in the country.

Wilde was involved in family reunification.

"At the time we thought 'where are we going to find Syrians to sponsor?'" she said. She went to her local mosque to ask about Syrian refugees. That's when she found out about several families torn apart by the conflict in the Middle East, many living in refugee camps.

She describes the first meeting with one of her families as "amazing."

"You're at the airport, you've been waiting for God knows how long, and they finally arrive! They're elated, and you're elated," she said. "And they're exhausted and they're ill. So then you move very quickly from 'let's have a party' to 'let's get you to the clinic.'"

"When you're first thinking about your family, you're thinking about taking care of them. Buying sheets and knives and forks and where they're going to live and go to school. But what you realize relatively quickly is they are adults. And you need to respect their independence and ability to make decisions." 

She said sponsors should focus on being a "support system" instead of managing their day-to-day lives. 

"You realize you're crossing a boundary and you need to be respectful," she said.

"When the families arrive, they are not refugees anymore. They are newcomers," said Wilde. "They are landed immigrants. They are allowed to work. They have OHIP right away. They really are residents of Toronto the first day they arrive."

Starting with Google, then welcoming a family of 6

Jennifer Nagel of the group Room for More is sponsoring a family set to arrive in west Toronto in December. Her sponsored family is currently in a refugee camp in Lebanon. 

The first step in bringing them to Canada took place months ago. It was form No. 5438, a request for refugee profile. 

"Google it! You can download the form, just like that. It's an easy two-page form," she said. 

On that form, the potential sponsor selects the size of family to bring over, based on what they can pay. For a single person, it's $12,600. For a family of five, $32,000.

Nagel put herself down for a family of five, but that family had another family member who was older. They raised a little more money and made it six. 

Nagel put her form in after she saw a photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy — later identified as Alan Kurdi — lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey. She put out a call on Facebook and then held a meeting in her living room for six or seven people. Now her team is 15 people.

The first hurdle for her was picking a family to sponsor.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking," she said of her options. It basically came down to the size of the family, she said.

The next challenge was where this family will live. She approached several building managers about offering a space for her sponsored family. In one case, she said a building manager in Parkdale was nearly in tears when he told her the building owner would not allow them to get a room at a discount.

But Nagel is still very happy with the response she got. The family found a place and will be moving in before the holidays.

"There's a lot of Canadians coming forward trying to make housing affordable," she said of all the offers she found.

She found other help from private businesses. The owner of Fresh Collective, a woman's clothing store on Queen Street West, has helped with a clothing drive. The store has found nearly 50 volunteers to help get clothes for the families.

For more on Canada's efforts to bring Syrian families here, see this guide.