Toronto Refugee Collective.  Photo provided by Samantha Jackson
Toronto Refugee Collective. Photo provided by Samantha Jackson

Welcome to Canada: the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge

Jul 12, 2016

In late 2015, Syria was hardly on the radar screen. Although a violent civil war had raged for several years, governments remained hesitant to become involved in a seemingly faraway, intractable conflict and media interest was waning. But humanitarian aid and refugee support agencies occasionally attracted attention and Canadians began asking why their government was not taking action.

Canada is a country of immigrants. And Toronto is a city where almost half of the residents were born outside the country; many more are children of refugees and immigrants. Many of us proudly recalled Canada's decisive action on Indochinese refugees. In 1979, the government opened the doors to expand private sponsorship, targeting 5,000 refugees. In just over four months, individual Canadian citizens and faith-based and civil society groups had committed citizen-led resettlement of more than 60,000 refugees, with Toronto-based Operation Lifeline taking a leadership role.

Wendy Cukier, vice president research and innovation, Ryerson University, Toronto; co-founder Lifeline Syria and Lead, Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge: While a graduate student in Toronto, I had organized a private sponsorship team and brought a Vietnamese family to Canada. As the daughter of a refugee I felt an obligation to "pay it forward." I also had first-hand experience with the challenges and joys of private sponsorship. We found them housing, furniture, and clothes, and helped them enroll in English lessons and get survival jobs (in those days, washing dishes was one of the easiest entry points).

A daughter of the family, born shortly after they arrived, went on to graduate from the university where I teach and works in human resources. Her cousin—whose family was, in turn sponsored by the family I sponsored—has a Ph.D. and works as a research scientist. Her parents have a great home in the suburbs, having graduated from dishwashing to more lucrative jobs. The children have married—with the sponsors prominently featured in the weddings—and now have children of their own.

Unique to Canada, private refugee resettlement allows groups of citizens to take responsibility for the welcoming and resettling of refugees. Formally, this includes 12 months of financial help (providing support for food, shelter, and the necessities of life) or about CAD$27,000 (approx USD20,570) per family of four, and settlement-based support (helping newcomers find schools, employment, services, etc.). Informally, the bonds between sponsors and newcomers normally last for years. We know from research that Wendy's story is not unusual and that, in general, privately sponsored refugees fare better than government-sponsored refugees because of their instant and ongoing access to the social capital and networks needed to succeed. We also know from research that Canada has one of the highest rates of social mobility in the world—that the wealth and education of your parents is not a predictor of your success as it is in more stratified societies.

Wendy Cukier: So when I was approached by a colleague and now senator, Ratna Omidvar, I jumped at the opportunity to try to replicate the success of Operation Lifeline. Late in 2015, Ratna convened a group which included people like me who had worked with Operation Lifeline three decades earlier, including the founders—Howard Adelman and former mayor John Sewell—as well as other academics, settlement agencies, and members of the Syrian community.

On June 17, 2015, Lifeline Syria was launched with the goal of promoting the private settlement of 1,000 Syrian refugees in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), which is home to about 3.2 million people. The mayor of Toronto, John Tory, pledged his support and called on other communities to step up.

Wendy Cukier: After a long day, I sent an email to my colleagues at the university to update them on the launch. Then president of Ryerson, Sheldon Levy, wrote back asking what Ryerson could do to lead and be seen as leaders and engage students. I said, "Sure, we can do this." I knew from my own experience that students are well positioned to help newcomers navigate and adapt. While they may not be able to generate the funds to fund private sponsorship, they are driven, skilled, and passionate changemakers. Ryerson is Canada's first Ashoka Changemaker campus, with students highly engaged in a host of clubs, projects, and social ventures.

So I sent a series of emails: to Ratna of course, and most important of all, to a number of my students, current and former, as well as my research associates in the Diversity Institute. Ratna replied in about four minutes, and Ph.D. candidate Samantha Jackson in less. It took only 37 minutes and a flurry of emails to commit to launching the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge to promote engagement of students, faculty, staff, and University partners with private sponsorship.

After efforts to secure funding from a donor failed, the group pivoted and decided to focus on getting prominent individuals and leaders at the university and its partners to commit to leading sponsorship teams and providing applied research and experiential learning opportunities for students, as befits a university. An initial donation of CAD$5,000 (approx USD3,810) was required from a team leader with a commitment to raise another CAD$22,000 (approx USD16,760) to sponsor a family of four. Student volunteers were canvassed and even though it was the middle of summer, Samantha rallied more than 100. On July 20, 2015, which also marked Eid, the end of Ramadan, the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge (RULSC) officially launched. While other universities were working through traditional channels, providing, for example, free tuition and scholarships for Syrian refugees, and working on education and research initiatives, RULSC was Canada's first ever university-led sponsorship organization, based on bridging disciplines and stakeholder groups, bringing together public and private partners, and harnessing the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity of students to leverage resources in the existing private sponsorship framework.

The initial target was modest: to create 11 teams to sponsor approximately 44 Syrian refugees. Team leaders included the university executive body, staff, partners, and community leaders. Critical to its success: a rocking crowdfunding website built by student volunteers and a responsive administrative team who said "yes" when they could have said "no." The university had never done anything like this before, so the systems for sponsoring research and donations required significant adaptation along with much consultation with accountants and lawyers to ensure that Ryerson would not jeopardize its reputation or tax-exempt status.

Samantha Jackson, Ph.D. candidate, McMaster University, volunteer coordinator, Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge: While much is said about Gen Y being a passive and apolitical generation, our experience is that post-secondary students are anything but apathetic. Campus culture is activist again; this is a generation of social innovations and entrepreneurs who expect their government to be responsive, and when gaps appear, are willing to roll up their sleeves and devise creative solutions to society's "wicked problems." The idea was this: draw on students' expertise, skills, and energy to create a team-based refugee sponsorship model that could scale to other universities and institutions across Canada. Even though it was the middle of summer, students began signing up in droves. In the middle of a quiet summer campus, more than 100 students joined in the first two weeks. We quickly organized students into two pathways: direct and indirect volunteers. Direct volunteers are paired with Ryerson sponsor teams to help prepare for their newcomer family's arrival. Students' keen familiarity with processes such as scouting out affordable apartments and transit-accessible neighborhoods quickly made them key players in the pre-arrival preparations.

Once a sponsored family arrive, students' flexible schedules and desire to help on an individual level make them invaluable social supports and guides to help newcomers navigate their new city.

Samantha Jackson: At first, students are just excited to be city ambassadors to the newest members of our community. But quickly we realized that these relationships are something different, and soon we're being invited to their family gatherings and inviting them to ours. This is an experience like nothing else.

Indirect volunteers prepare resources to support sponsor teams and newcomer families. Volunteers apply what they've learned in the classroom on committees that reflect their area of study, including finance, health, and political engagement. For example, nursing students on the Health & Wellness Committee researched how newcomers could get a health card; politics students on the Political Engagement Committee deliver "Canada 101" seminars to familiarize newcomers on topics ranging from Canada's electoral system to the citizenship application process. Students also draw on their own interests and skill sets to join committees such as peer mentoring, employment, and Arabic translation and interpretation. All committees contributed their research to updating a Sponsorship Handbook for sponsors and newcomers.

Wendy Cukier: Students are our secret weapon because they have been the bedrock of the support and being able to offer translation support, support in finding jobs, accommodation, and so on has really led many people to want to work with us at Ryerson and the other universities.

By ensuring volunteers were filling identified needs but by also giving them the the latitude to design innovative programming (from a social innovation hackathon and case competition to a South Asian arts fundraiser), students' commitment has been sustained and powerful.

Samantha Jackson: The project offers a unique opening for those who want to do something about the Syrian crisis: This platform cuts through the noise and lets students turn their outrage into action. Of course there are frameworks and requirements. But it also provides space for them to generate ideas and projects, to take the project where they want to go, and all the while gaining incredibly valuable opportunities to apply what they are learning, to learn by doing, and to make connections and network.

Part of the success of resource-generating committees is our leveraging of existing resources. This includes scanning the Toronto settlement ecosystem for existing programs that can provide information and services for Syrian newcomers, as well as partnering with existing on-campus student innovations. For example, RULSC paired with student group Enactus Ryerson to tailor financial literacy courses for Syrian newcomers and help them become familiar with Canadian financial processes. Radwan Al-Nachawati, 22, marketing student and president of the Muslim Students' Association, said he jumped at the chance to be a part of the Ryerson Lifeline Syria Challenge. "Living in Canada, we are blessed with opportunity, and with opportunity comes responsibility. It is our duty to give back," he said.

Many of our sponsors and supporters are prominent Canadians—the mayor, media celebrities, CEOs of private corporations—people that the students would not otherwise have access to and now they are working with them side by side. The minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship has come to student-led events. The minister of finance came to a meeting at a community center to meet the families and volunteers and bring gifts.

Timing is everything and the timing of the RULSC launch proved critical. On September 2, 2015, media around the world published the photograph of the body of four-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned alongside his mother while crossing the Mediterranean. And suddenly, citizens across Canada saw that this could have been their child, and many, including RULSC founder Wendy Cukier, called for nationwide action. What has been called the worst humanitarian crisis of the century—indeed, the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII—became visceral.

Demand for action and interest from new sponsors grew and RULSC increased its targets to 25 families or 100 refugees. Then at a meeting organized by Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU), President Sara Diamond of the University of Toronto and York University agreed to join in and the target was raised again—to 75 families or 300 refugees.

Each campus brings with it a unique institutional identity that contributes to the pan-university Challenge's ongoing success. For example, law students at York University work with volunteer lawyers to help process files. Art students at OCADU organize creative events. University of Toronto students bring together speakers to engage refugee sponsors in pertinent issues facing newcomers, such as access to healthcare.

Samantha Jackson: While metrics on Syrian family arrivals and student engagement are telling, the true impact of the RULSC will be seen in the years to come, when this generation of students can continue the incredible impetus around private sponsorship in Canada to help additional populations in times of need.

Until then, RULSC volunteers and staff continue to work in small and large ways to make Toronto a city where refugees are welcome both today and tomorrow. Interest in the Canadian private sponsorship model is growing: The minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship spoke about its potential to the United Nations in Geneva, and the Niskanen Center Washington, DC has championed its potential as a sharing economy innovation with great potential in the United States. The minister of immigration for Norway recently visited to learn more about private sponsorship in Canada.

The first Syrian family arrived in October 2016 and to date, more than 100 individuals have arrived and been settled across the country. Some of the most successful sponsorships are in small towns, for example in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, or Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Wendy Cukier: While there is no doubt this is rooted in Canadians' commitments to human rights and multiculturalism, there is also a good understanding of "the business case" for immigration. Canada NEEDs immigrants to maintain its economic growth and while the large cities are often magnets for newcomers, smaller communities are demanding their share.

In just under one year, Toronto's network of universities has raised more than CAD$4.3 million (approx USD3.27 million), formed more than 100 teams, and helped 19 Syrian families (consisting of 99 people) settle in Canada, with many more on their way. RULSC has attracted a network of more than 1,000 volunteers, including students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members.

RULSC is providing unparalleled experiential learning at all four universities. For student volunteers like Al-Nachawati, it's a good fit: "University is not only about academic and professional growth, but also about developing a sense of empathy and making a difference in the lives of others."

And without question, it is building the university's reputation as a leader and as a changemaker. All because of the fact that many, many individuals chose to act rather than just talk. For example, Samantha Jackson, the volunteer coordinator of the project, cancelled her plans for a big wedding reception and instead donated the funds to the project. The story went global, with interest in private sponsorship emerging from the United States to the United Kingdom, and in news and popular media.

Samantha Jackson: We feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to sponsor a family with the support of our friends and relatives. People from across the country and indeed the world were incredibly generous and allowed us to sponsor a larger family than originally planned. Every donation sent a clear message: Refugees are welcome in our communities.

What is perhaps even more exciting about RULSC is that it is really a manifestation of a new approach—using social innovation models to try to improve settlement and leverage increasingly scarce public funds to advance important goals.

Wendy Cukier: If you think about the discussions of "the sharing economy," bringing people with needs together with people who have resources, this is as unique a model in some respects as Airbnb. We have challenged traditional processes and approaches—rather than asking sponsors to come to meetings or to wade through complex forms, we will go to them and make the process as simple and painless as possible. By adding student volunteers to the mix we reduce their concerns about the amount of work needed, the translation challenges, and the navigation of systems. We offer economies of scale. There is still much more to be done but we can see the potential.

And what is also exciting is the extent of engagement of more than "the usual suspects"—many people who would not normally be engaged in volunteer activities on this scale. Traditionally in Canada, private sponsorship was led by faith-based groups—and they continue to play an instrumental role. RULSC has worked very closely with Sponsorship Agreement Holders like the Roman Catholic Church's Office of Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto as well as the Christie Welcome Centre, who have both provided enormous support in processing and submitting files for us. We have brought to the table countless corporate partners. For example, the large accounting firm KPMG, which is the university's auditor, not only provided pro bono support and participates in the Employers' Council, but has also encouraged employees to start sponsorship groups with us. Paramount foods president Mohamad Fakhir, a self-made millionaire and himself an immigrant from Lebanon, offered up to 100 jobs in his stores to the newcomers, cooperated with Ryerson on a job fair, and with student volunteers who provide translation and support. Magnet, a partnership between Ryerson and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, offers matching and tracking software to link job seekers to employers and has set up a project specifically targeting Syrian newcomers.

We are trying to learn lessons from the project that can be scaled more widely and also applied to addressing other large-scale challenges. Some of the lessons learned:

  • Say yes when you could say no: Promote an organizational bias towards action and intelligent risk taking.
  • Build on existing good ideas: We tapped into Ryerson's rich ecosystem of student-run organizations to see what on-campus initiatives could be adapted to meet the needs of the RULSC. For example, Ryerson Enactus created a Canadian financial literacy course for the program's Syrian arrivals.
  • Timing is not of the essence, it is everything: Others were still in discussions and consultations months after we launched. We moved quickly, without all the details sorted out. That proved essential to absorb the tsunami of support that hit after the shattering photograph of Alan Kurdi.
  • Leverage technology: Our online infrastructure was critical to capturing public support.
  • Learn from successes and failures: Iterate. Pivot. Make it up as you go along.
  • Collaborate to innovate: To go fast, go alone. To go far, build a team (but, a fast team).
  • Reflect: Assess and evaluate processes.

Wendy Cukier: Fundamentally, our success stemmed from challenging the status quo. We are entrepreneurs. Bureaucracies typically focus on rules and ensuring all the resources are in place before they move. Entrepreneurs have a bias towards action; they take risks and pursue their goals assuming that the resources will catch up. We need to erode boundaries and leverage resources across sectors to grapple these big challenges and drive change.

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