© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Private Sponsorship Programs Help Syrian Refugees Settle In Canada


And now let's turn our attention to the north, to Canada, where people are not just opening the door to Syrian refugees; they're lining up to help them. Syrian resettlement is still at a relative trickle here in the United States. But Canada plans to bring in tens of thousands in the coming months. Now, this is being done mostly by private individuals and groups offering money and friendship. NPR's Jackie Northam visited some of the Syrians and their Canadian sponsors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Arabic).


JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The sound of a loving mother showering her young son with tickles kisses helps brighten up an otherwise dreary cold December day.


NORTHAM: The 38-year-old mother has a soft, round face and long, dark hair cascading down her back. She smiles easy as she plays with her son in their ground-floor apartment. She asks that we don't use her real name because she's scared for her family still stuck in Syria. The war there forced her with her husband and three young boys to flee to Lebanon in 2012. Two months ago, they got on a plane to Canada. She says she wasn't happy about the idea.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter). All the way in the airplane, I was blaming my husband, asking him, why did we do this? We don't know where we're going, and we have these small children. We don't know what's waiting for us in Canada.

NORTHAM: But there were Canadians waiting for them at the airport.

JANET HOWITT: And we had a sign that said, welcome in English and Arabic and their names.

NORTHAM: Janet Howitt was among a small church group that met the family.

HOWITT: So as soon as they came out and they saw the sign, you could just visibly see their body posture change a bit, lift up a little bit and smile. You know, like, you're here; somebody's here. I'm sure they had visions of they'd get to this Toronto place and, what are we going to do now?

NORTHAM: The Syrian mother says there were more surprises.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter). They told us, let's go to your home now. I said, we don't have a home. And they told us, don't worry; we've rented a home for you. And everything's there for you.

NORTHAM: The family now lives in Kitchener, Ontario, about 90 miles west of Toronto. They're being resettled with the help of a private sponsorship program in Canada, where individuals or groups like Howitt's church group make a commitment to take care of the Syrian refugees they sponsor for a year. Howitt says that includes providing financial help, about 25,000 U.S. dollars for a family of five Syrians.

HOWITT: For the first year in Canada, you are responsible for all of their living expenses, for settling them, if you will, for orientation support, for helping them get into school or into work.

NORTHAM: The Canadian government provides health care, transportation and English lessons for the refugees. The private sponsorship program was developed in the late 1970s, when Canada resettled refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asia nations. In the U.S., refugee resettlement has become a security issue and a political debate. In Canada, a government got elected on assurances it could resettle people safely. Now there are thousands of Canadians who have signed up, through PTAs to dog walking groups to major companies who want to take part.

BRAD WATSON: Hello, hello.

NORTHAM: Hello. Hi, I'm Jackie.

WATSON: How are you?


NORTHAM: Jackie Northam.

WATSON: I'm Brad. Nice to meet you.

NORTHAM: Brad Watson and Rachel D'Aguilar are part of a neighborhood association that's sponsoring refugees. I meet them at Watson's home in a tiny area of Kitchener. They've just returned from signing a lease on an apartment for a Syrian family.

D'AGUILAR: Oh, it's beautiful.

WATSON: It's beautiful. We were just there. It's really nice.

D'AGUILAR: It's got beautiful backsplash. It's very current with the times. It has a nice - yeah, nice gray laminate flooring.

NORTHAM: Like many other people across Canada, Watson and D'Aguilar wanted to help the refugees after a photo appeared in news outlets across the world of a lifeless 3-year-old Syrian boy who had washed up on a Turkish beach. Alan Kurdy's family had applied and was turned down for Canadian asylum. Watson said he was also motivated to be a sponsor because he felt the previous Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn't doing enough to help.

WATSON: For many of us, it was like, well, if our government won't do it, then we will. There are so many complicated issues in the world. This didn't seem complicated. It seemed very clear. This seems like the right thing to do. And we'll do it.

NORTHAM: Their neighborhood association has raised more than the minimum $25,000. And furniture and clothing donations have poured in. D'Aguilar says she's running from one meeting to the next in preparation of the refugees' arrival.

D'AGUILAR: I think as much as we're all really excited to have a big party and embrace them, we're going to just try and take this slowly and be respectful of, you know, just the emotions and the experience that they'll be going through when they get here.

NORTHAM: And to help the Syrian family transition to life in Canada. D'Aguilar says they're even putting together a handbook, written in Arabic, with helpful information, including local bus routes and how to set the thermostat in their new home. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Kitchener, Ontario. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, politics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.