One year later: How Canada's nonprofit sector continues to support Syrian refugees

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Rarely have we seen a picture galvanize people into action as much as the photo of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi. In 2015, this image broke the hearts of people around the world and brought attention to the now five-year-old civil war that has resulted in the deaths of up to an estimated 470,000 people, the creation of more than 4.8 million refugees, and the internal displacement of more than 6.3 million others. In Canada, the newly elected Liberal government pledged to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees within four months, and another 25,000 by the end of 2016, as well as to process by the end of 2017 all of the privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications submitted by March 31, 2016 (of which there were 12,000).

The first of these pledged Syrian refugees arrived in Canada on November 4, 2015. The needs of the refugees were, according to Paul Clarke, executive director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, not unlike those of other refugees. “What was different was the big push of such a large cohort. It was like a refugee baby boom.”

Last year, as the refugees arrived, we talked with some of the many people and organizations involved to understand what this scaling up of their work meant for them, both in terms of challenges and opportunities. A year in, we thought we would find out how this massive influx, this sudden boom of refugees, affected the nonprofit sector in Canada over this past year, and how it will change the sector moving forward.

The reality

Canada has provided refuge to people escaping danger and persecution almost as long as it has been a country, but we have a mixed history of bright moments and dark times.

In 2014, the year before the Aylan Kurdi photo was published, Canada accepted 7,575 government-assisted refugees and 4,560 privately sponsored refugees. Of these, approximately 1,000 were from Syria.

2015 could reasonably be called a sea change in the perception of Canadians toward refugees — and in our actions. Clarke says, “When the photo of Aylan Kurdi appeared, our phone began ringing off the hook with people wanting to sponsor refugees, people wanting to give stuff, people wanting to volunteer with programs, foundations offering us money. Once the government announced the 25,000 refugees, our phone lines jammed.”

Rick Cober Bauman, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCC), whose organization has a long history of supporting refugees, explains, “In MCC, we worked with an average of eight private sponsorship groups a year bringing in people from a variety of places around the world. Last fall, within a few months that number jumped to 230, with requests coming in rapidly, some from groups that had never considered refugee sponsorship before.”

The same story occurred across the country. Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia is the only organization in the province responsible for initial government sponsored refugees, and, like MCC, is a sponsorship agreement holder for private refugee sponsorship groups. Executive Director Gerry Mills says that in a typical year, ISANS would work with approximately 25 to 28 privately sponsored refugees and approximately 175 government-assisted refugees. “This year we are working with 550 privately sponsored and about 1,000 government-assisted refugees.” Clarke’s group in Montreal often worked with 25-40 sponsored refugees annually — with that number jumping to more than 160 in late 2015. Clarke adds, “Instead of it taking two or three years for a refugee to arrive in Canada, the process was also sped up so that people were arriving within a couple of months.”

As of this writing, a total of 37,402 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada over the past year and have settled in 357 communities across the country.

Capacity building

“To receive such a widespread volume of people, agencies had to ramp up services on no notice,” explains Tara Bedard, manager of immigration partnership for the Region of Waterloo. “There was a fast expansion of agencies and services and a fast learning curve. Some organizations have staffed up, especially those with dedicated funding from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, while others have managed their response within their existing staffing structures by reorganizing their resources.”

ISANS increased their staff by about 40 people — both those working in resettlement and staff hired for language training — while Action Réfugiés Montréal doubled their staff between September and December 2015. They also needed to rent more space, make decisions about equipment, work space, training and new working relationships.

At the same time as all of this sudden expansion, organizations across the country were also dealing directly with the needs of new sponsorship groups and newly arrived refugees. Cober Bauman observes that MCC often deals with large scale international crises after natural disasters, “but in this case, the groups wanting support were right here. We also had to take on additional legal responsibilities such as police checks for sponsorship groups, and financial responsibilities. And then, unlike many of our projects, we didn’t share responsibilities with our international colleagues — we had both administrative and programming responsibilities right here.”

The growth and learning curve peaked in about March 2016, according to Bedard. “Since then, organizations have worked at this new level, trying to maintain service while thinking ahead.”


One way the sector was able to rise to the demand was with the help of volunteers. “We were thrilled by how many people stepped forward to say, ‘you must need extra help — can I volunteer or give you money?’” says Cober Bauman. “People saw a need and stepped up with resources — although we often said yes before we knew where resources would come from.”

Paula Speevak, president and CEO at Volunteer Canada says, “This influx of refugees inspired those who had not been volunteers or donors before to get involved. That was really important because, as they see the benefits of their contributions, they are much more likely to do so again.” To the fear that existing volunteers and donors would direct their efforts toward refugees — and away from their previous commitments, Speevak says, “People have maintained their commitments and some have extended them in new ways.”

Being inundated with volunteers can also be a challenge, says Clarke whose organization didn’t typically use many volunteers and suddenly had 150 prospective volunteers. “We wanted to respond in a positive way and direct that energy where it was needed.” Speevak observes that the interest in refugees has been good for the voluntary sector as a whole: “Many organizations were inundated with large numbers of people stepping forward to volunteer. Many volunteer centres across the country helped these prospective volunteers see that work that indirectly benefitted refugees — such as volunteer tutoring — were worthy ways of becoming involved.”

Speevak also notes that the whole private refugee sponsorship model is part of an emerging model of volunteerism, one that is more informal and self-organizing. Canadians who want to privately sponsor a refugee need to form “groups of five” in order to do so. These groups and individuals may not be counted when organizations track volunteer hours, says Speevak, but their commitment is valuable and deep. “There are thousands of people waiting to sponsor refugees. The fact that generosity is ahead of bureaucracy can be frustrating, but it is also wonderful in terms of what it says about people.”


Obviously, another capacity-building need is for funding. In addition to private sponsorship groups acting as financial guarantors for their sponsored refugees for a year, Canadians were invited to donate to charitable organizations with the government matching donations — between September 2015 and April 2016, Canadians donated $31.8 million. Bedard says, “Our community was even more generous than we understood. There was an unreserved engagement of individuals supporting this effort, to the point that we found we needed to put a collaborative structure in place to manage donations and flow money to agencies for needed programming.”

While it is still too early to know whether this was “new money” or whether people and organizations redirected donations from other charities, anecdotally, organizations report a sense that this was the former. “Even in a year that was tough because the Canadian dollar was so low, we were able to meet our budget commitments both locally and internationally, in addition to our new work with refugees. We did not have to shortchange or borrow from other projects," Cober Bauman says. “This was a remarkable response from our community to give to a need that was human-based rather than caused by natural disaster. People reached deeply and Canada was a beacon on this, especially in terms of private sponsorship.”

Corporations and foundations also responded generously. Clarke says, “Last year, we received donations from corporations we hadn’t even approached for funding.”

Canadians also donated a substantial amount of material goods. “We don’t usually have a donation centre,” says Mills, “but we did for this because of overwhelming desire. Nova Scotians saw that picture of Aylan Kurdi and saw their child or grandchild and now it was personal and they wanted to do something about it. We filled a storage centre to the ceiling with donations, with everything from kitchen goods to bicycles to toiletries.”

An increase in donors also requires stewarding these donors to encourage them to renew their donations, says Clarke. “Even though the media is not mentioning refugees as frequently, we are operating at a higher level and so we need continuing donations. We are grateful for the donors who are making ongoing or renewed donations.”


The nonprofit sector often talks about the value of collaboration but in this case, as Mills says, “we couldn’t have done this all by ourselves.” Stakeholders from across the nonprofit, public and private sectors came together to pool resources and to avoid duplication of services or waste. This was important in terms of both services and goods — ISANS explained to its donors that when they closed their donation centre, they would donate any leftover items to other charities across the province, and were able to offer useful goods to 30 other charities.

Growing pains

As with any enormous undertaking, there were growing pains. One significant one was the risk of burnout and stress among staff. Clarke describes the nature of the stress on his organization. “As a small organization, our planning was constantly thrown off by other agendas so that we had to continuously readjust our planning.”

Cober Bauman says, “Without question this year was stressful. People worked too much at levels that weren’t sustainable. We probably should have said no to some things but we wanted, for instance, to be sure we were also responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other priorities.” In order to be sure staff did not burn out, Cober Bauman says, “We responded to people and they got good service from us, but not always as quickly as we would like to under normal circumstances.”

Bedard adds, “There has always been a strong focus on self-care for people working in this sector because working with people going through stressful times is itself really stressful. This year local agencies heightened their focus on self-care.”

Other challenges were also felt, with organizations that work more generally with refugees, such as Action Réfugiés Montréal, reporting that they struggled with the inequity between programs available to Syrian refugees and that are not available to non-Syrian refugees.

Giving back

“People don’t feel like they are part of the community until they start contributing,” says Mills. “Refugees are doing well integrating in the communities and are giving back.” She describes ex-refugees helping newly arrived Syrians, acting as interpreters and coaching sports in the community.

Speevak notes this is part of the self-organizing trend in volunteerism. “People aren’t necessarily here with their extended families so self-organizing within the Syrian diaspora to provide mutual support is beneficial.”

There are also multiple reports of Syrian refugees giving back to their host communities — from the funds raised by Edmonton-based Syrian refugees to support the Fort McMurray fire evacuees to the Kitchener, Ontario refugees who hosted a thank you event for Canadians — complete with Tim Horton’s coffee along with Syrian baked goods, dancing and drumming.

Looking ahead

The challenge for organizations looking ahead is sustained volunteer and donor support in order to meet program demands. Cober Bauman says, “Now that this is out of the limelight, people aren’t lining up in the same way to write a cheque or volunteer but at the same time, a lot of the work we need to do is still ahead of us and a lot of those cases are still in process.”

The work has lost some of what Mills calls the “frenzied nature” of late 2015 and early 2016 but there are still large numbers of refugees coming — the federal government projections for 2017 keep the number of refugees at the same level but with more emphasis on private sponsorships, something Bedard says will mean a need for continued support. These organizations want to make sure new refugees will be well integrated into Canadian life, and that existing refugees will have support as signs of trauma become more visible once they are settled.

Organizations also want to be able to staff their organizations appropriately. “We don’t expect we will have 230 new partnership groups this year,” says Cober Bauman, “but we’re not assuming we will go back to having just eight again. It’s hard to know what the new normal will be.”

Mills sums up the past year in refugee settlement: “It’s been amazing, exhausting, frustrating and exhilarating—and not one person who worked on this would want to be anywhere else. Syrian refugees generally are doing very well and, like other populations, will make a tremendous contribution to the Canadian community.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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