I got to play God the other day, and I didn’t like it.
On a table in front of me were pictures of Syrian families who have been stuck in refugee camps in Jordan for the past three years. I had to help decide which family my sponsor group was going to bring into Canada to resettle. It was a difficult moment, and it had taken months to even get to this point.
It all started with an interview about Syria that I’d heard on the radio. Then came the haunting image of the Syrian toddler, the one that captured international attention. It sparked an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. What if I could help sponsor a family? So I did a little digging.
I discovered that settling a family of four in Toronto costs a minimum of $27,000 and a one-year commitment. The sponsor group is responsible for meeting the newly arrived family at the airport and finding them accommodations. The sponsors try to ease their transition by signing them up for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and helping them secure jobs. This is all done on a strict budget. Sponsors essentially act as an extended family and answer any questions or concerns. In the past, refugees who’ve entered Canada on social assistance tend to settle in quite well and become upstanding contributors to society.
The point of private sponsorship is to get ordinary Canadian families working together to help refugees settle into the country without being a burden on the government. After their one-year commitment is up, the refugee families are on their own and they can go on social assistance if they’re struggling to hold down a job.
But could I really do this?
I thought about my Jewish ancestors and how they’d been refugees and moved to different countries around the globe after the Second World War. Back then, my relatives were the ones who were persecuted and exiled. Now, we’re happy and comfortable. So how could I not pay it forward? But still I hesitated. I didn’t think I could take in a family—that is, until I talked to a friend and found that the conversation quickly went from “Is this a crazy idea?” to “We can totally do this!” We sent an email to our friends and found that people were eager to commit, even though we had requested a minimum pledge of $2,000 per family and hours of community service. In fact, so many people wanted to join that we had to close our group to include only those who live within a few blocks of us.
Everyone has something to offer, whether it’s their time, money or job connections. Our group is made up of people with a wide range of skills. They’re all teachers, lawyers, doctors, stay-at-home moms and fashion consultants. Our group of 20 families feels like it’s our turn to help try to make the world a better place.
But before we go any further, I have what feels like thousands of forms to fill out, and then there are the negotiations with friends and family over money, clothing and housewares. There are logistics to be worked out, budgets to be drawn up and committees to form. We’ve already sat through hours of training in church basements, and we work around one another’s schedules. I’ve probably talked to my fellow sponsors more in the last month than I have my own mother. But I’m not complaining. Working together with others to help another family brings a rush of adrenalin. It’s a chance to see the good side of people—a nice contrast from the usual tragic news stories. It’s also an opportunity to show my kids how to give back and assist others.
My three kids didn’t get it at first, but they’re slowly coming around to the idea of helping strangers. To help them better understand why, I showed them a UNICEF video so they could grasp the concept of a refugee camp. We’ve discussed different things they can do to help out, such as collect books, teach the kids to skate and sometimes babysit. They seem proud of the project and have taken it upon themselves to tell their teachers and friends. I hope it’s a seed that takes root for them.
There has been some anxiety along the way. The family arrives in February (well, maybe), and the pressure to have everything ready in advance is intense. We can’t forget anything: We’re creating a new life for two adults and their two small children—we have to get it right. And yet, the deeper we get into the process, the more it becomes obvious that helping one family in need isn’t enough; it’s only one drop in the bucket. For every family we help, there’s another one left behind.
But in the meantime, I can look at the picture of two-year-old Mohammad and his big brother, Ahmed, and know that we’re helping to make their lives better. They were the ones we matched with because their family has a medical condition that some members in our group have expertise with. Both Mohammad and Ahmed were born in a refugee camp in Jordan. Imagine what it will be like for them when they see the playground at the park in our neighbourhood. For now, just the thought of that moment makes it all worth it.
For more information on how to sponsor a family, visit Lifeline Syria.