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While other countries turn Syrian refugees away, Canadians are taking them home

May 5, 2016

Washington Post | Amir Al Jabouli leads the way, holding his Samsung phone out into the snowfall with his bare right hand. The instructions the speakerphone emits are barely audible in the whir of the wind. But Amir is focused.

“Turn right in 200 meters,” comes the tinny, digitized voice of Arabic Google Maps.

He turns, and so do his wife, Raghda Altellawi, and their daughters, Ghena, 6, and Nagham, 5. The girls, who are wearing snow pants and bulky winter boots for the first time, are struggling to walk. They laugh and grab each other’s hands.

They have just come to Canada as refugees from the war in Syria, and this February day is their first day of school. It is not only the girls’ first day of school in Canada, but their first ever. Ghena and Nagham were just babies when fighting closed schools in their home town of Homs. After surviving siege, bombardment and Amir’s kidnapping, they fled to Lebanon, where school was out of reach for many Syrians. Now Nagham is starting junior kindergarten and Ghena, first grade. Twenty-two-year-old Raghda and 31-year-old Amir, who left school in seventh and ninth grades, respectively, are starting full-time English classes.

The snow looks beautiful to Amir, a clean white sheet over a dirty world. Every footstep makes a fresh imprint. It’s how he feels about all of life in Canada.

“I feel reborn,” he has been saying since he landed in Toronto 10 days ago. Of course, there are details to figure out. No one in the family speaks English. They have no jobs. And they know almost no one.

But they do have a network of people poised to help. A group of strangers brought them to Canada, using a private sponsorship process that has become a global model and that some refugee advocates in the United States want to replicate. The program places the power of selecting, financing and resettling refugees in the hands of regular citizens, as long as the refugees clear Canadian government security, background and health checks.

So as Amir and Raghda navigate this new landscape, they are not alone. Amir was able to access Google Maps because his sponsor Ali Khan had set him up with a new phone and data plan. Sponsor Ashley Hilkewich had taken a day off work to take them to an English assessment, and another sponsor had registered the girls in school. For one year, Amir, Raghda and the girls have the support of about 20 Canadian volunteers and 80 donors.

In December, the world saw images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming the first planeload of incoming refugees from Syria in the Toronto airport, telling them, “You are home. Welcome home.” But as many as 10,000 of the more than 26,000 Syrians who have arrived in Canada so far are being privately sponsored by groups of regular Canadians — a dog-walking group, a book club, a choir, officemates, block associations. Young families offer up basement apartments and retirees donate housewares from the attic. Resettling refugees has become a national project.

“I have absolutely never seen anything like this in my entire career in the public service,” says Sarita Bhatla, Canada’s director of refugees.

In the United States — which has the largest refugee resettlement program in the world but does not permit private sponsorship — lawmakers and refugee advocates are watching Canada. The U.S. is taking in about 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, but some say private citizens could do much more. A coalition of organizations led by the libertarian Niskanen Center has been lobbying the White House for executive action to authorize a scaled-back version of private sponsorship. The center proposes that private donors create a fund to cover costs of bringing refugees in excess of the government quotas. There’s a precedent. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan began a program that allowed private organizations to resettle 16,000 Soviet Jews and Cubans — but it was not renewed.

Meanwhile, in the borderless era of Facebook fundraising, U.S. citizens interested in sponsoring Syrian refugees have been donating money to Canadian groups. Tens of thousands of Americans have also offered help to U.S. resettlement agencies, the organizations the federal government contracts to help refugees begin new lives. Watching Canada, refugee advocates wonder: What if there was a mechanism to translate these offers of help into direct action? Could the ability of regular people to take action inject goodwill throughout the society?

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