Across Canada, ordinary citizens, distressed by news reports of drowning children and the shunning of desperate migrants, are intervening in one of the world’s most pressing problems.
TORONTO — In February, Kerry McLorg drove to a Toronto airport hotel to pick up a family of Syrian refugees. She was cautious by nature, with a job poring over insurance data, but she had never even spoken to the people who were about to move into her basement.
“I don’t know if they even know we exist,” she said.
At the hotel, Abdullah Mohammad’s room phone rang, and an interpreter told him to go downstairs. His children’s only belongings were in pink plastic bags, and the family’s documents lay in a white paper bag printed with a Canadian flag.
Across Canada, ordinary citizens, distressed by news reports of drowning children and the shunning of desperate migrants, are intervening in one of the world’s most pressing problems. Their country allows them a rare power and responsibility: They can band together in small groups and personally resettle — essentially adopt — a refugee family. In Toronto, hockey moms, dog-walking friends, book-club members, poker buddies and lawyers have formed circles to take in Syrian families. The Canadian government says sponsors officially number in the thousands, but the groups have many more extended members.
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When McLorg walked into the lobby to meet Mohammad and his wife, Eman, she had a letter to explain how sponsorship worked: For one year, McLorg and her group would provide financial and practical support, from subsidizing food and rent to supplying clothes to helping them learn English and find work. She and her partners had already raised more than 40,000 Canadian dollars (about $30,700), selected an apartment, talked to the local school and found a nearby mosque.
McLorg, the mother of two teenagers, made her way through the crowded lobby. Another member of the group clutched a welcome sign she had written in Arabic. When the Mohammads appeared, McLorg asked their permission to shake hands and took in the people standing before her, no longer just names on a form. Abdullah Mohammad looked older than his 35 years. His wife was unreadable, wearing a niqab that obscured her face except for a narrow slot for her eyes. Their four children, all younger than 10, wore donated parkas.
For the Mohammads, who had been in Canada less than 48 hours, the signals were even harder to read. In Syria, Abdullah had worked in his family’s grocery stores and Eman had been a nurse, but after three years of barely hanging on in Jordan, they were not used to being wanted or welcomed. “You mean we’re leaving the hotel?” Abdullah asked. To himself, he was wondering, “What do these people want in return?”
Much of the world is reacting to the refugee crisis — 21 million displaced from their countries, nearly 5 million of them Syrian — with hesitation or hostility. Greece shipped migrants back to Turkey; Denmark confiscated their valuables; and even Germany, which has accepted more than 500,000 refugees, is struggling with growing resistance to them. Broader anxiety about immigration and borders helped motivate Britons to take the extraordinary step last week of voting to leave the European Union.
In the U.S., a majority of American governors said they wanted to block Syrian refugees because some could be dangerous. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has called for temporary bans on all foreign Muslims from entering the country and recently warned that Syrian refugees would cause “big problems in the future.” The Obama administration promised to take in 10,000 Syrians by Sept. 30 but has admitted about half that many.
Just across the border, however, the Canadian government can barely keep up with the demand to welcome the refugees. Many volunteers felt called to action by the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose body washed up last fall on a Turkish beach. He had only a slight connection to Canada — his aunt lived near Vancouver — but his death caused recrimination so strong it helped elect an idealistic, refugee-friendly prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
Impatient would-be sponsors — “an angry mob of do-gooders,” The Toronto Star called them — have been seeking more families. The new government committed to taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees and then raised the total by tens of thousands.
“I can’t provide refugees fast enough for all the Canadians who want to sponsor them,” John McCallum, the country’s immigration minister, said in an interview.
Advocates for sponsorship believe private citizens can achieve more than the government alone, raising the number of refugees admitted, guiding newcomers more effectively and potentially helping solve the puzzle of how best to resettle Muslims in Western countries. The fear is that all of this effort could end badly, with the Canadians looking naive.
The Syrians are screened, and many sponsors and refugees take offense at the notion that they could be dangerous, saying they are often victims of terrorism themselves. But U.S. officials point out that it is difficult to track activity in the chaotic, multifaceted Syrian war. Several Islamic State group members involved in the 2015 Paris attacks arrived on Europe’s shores from Syria posing as refugees.
Some refugees in Canada have middle- and upper-class backgrounds. But many more face steep paths to integration, with no money, uncertain employment prospects and huge cultural gaps. Some had never heard of Canada until shortly before arriving.
Muaz and Sawsan Ballani and their 2-year-old son arrived in February, disoriented and alone. The couple had been languishing in Jordan, sleeping in a house crammed with too many people, and ants that crawled over their son. “If we hadn’t come here, we would have died,” said Muaz Ballani.
The family’s sponsors started as mostly strangers to one another, a few former colleagues, a friend of a friend. The Ballanis became their cause. Together they found a bright apartment and countered the bareness with cheery posters and tags labeling everything in English: lamp, cupboard, wall, door. The couple cooked elaborate Middle Eastern thank-you meals for the sponsors. Muaz Ballani donned a Toronto Maple Leafs hat that he wore day after day, and his wife gamely hopped on a toboggan.
Volunteers cannot fully anticipate what they may confront: clashing expectations of whether Syrian women should work, tensions over how money is spent, families that are still dependent when the year is up, disagreements within sponsor groups.
Still, by mid-April, eight weeks after their first encounter with McLorg, the Mohammads had a downtown apartment with a pristine kitchen, bikes for the children to zip around the courtyard, and a Canadian flag taped to the window.
Abdullah Mohammad searched for the right words to describe what the sponsors had done for him. “It’s like I’ve been on fire, and now I’m safe in the water,” he said.
In mid-May, at the end of a routine meeting with the sponsors and the Mohammads, McLorg shared news of her own: She had breast cancer. Now that she was facing surgery, she was the one who was vulnerable, and the Syrians were the ones who were checking on her.
They brought flowers and chocolates; the other sponsors, now practiced in the logistics of caring, offered meal deliveries and other assistance. “I had no intention of building my own support group, but I have one now,” McLorg said.