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Robert Taylor, left, and Jehad Al Sebai watch Mohamad, 8, climb a pumpkin display Wednesday. The Syrian family met their Ottawa refugee sponsors at a grocery store to pick out seasonal supplies. (Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail)
Robert Taylor, left, and Jehad Al Sebai watch Mohamad, 8, climb a pumpkin display Wednesday. The Syrian family met their Ottawa refugee sponsors at a grocery store to pick out seasonal supplies. (Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail)

Retirement Planning

Retired Canadians roll up their sleeves to help Syrian refugees Add to ...

Ottawa resident Robert Taylor was once asked why he devotes so much of his retirement to helping refugees – chairing committees, doing paperwork, organizing others, the kind of work many try to escape in retirement.

His answer: “How can you not?”

The former civil servant chairs a loose volunteer group with an unadorned name, the Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship, which for the past year has assisted a Syrian family of six settle in Canada.

This has involved everything from giving financial help to providing rides to the dentist, setting up a bank account, getting a library card, the myriad things a family needs but which can be puzzling when thrust into a new Canadian world, a new language, a new life.

“We’re dealing with kids [two young twin boys, a younger boy and an even younger girl] who had never been in school before, kids who freaked out when there was thunder because they probably associated thunder with bombing. They couldn’t handle sitting in a dental chair in a dentist’s office. We had to make arrangements with the childrens’ hospital here to look after the teeth,” Mr. Taylor said.

“It’s very time consuming. I would say that most of the people involved [the volunteers] were retired,” he said.

Mr. Taylor, who is 73 and has come from a career filled with project-oriented work, elaborated, “I’m not a professional do-gooder. It’s not something I sought out.” In September, Mr. Taylor was among 46 others from the Ottawa area awarded the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers, given by the Governor-General.

Listening to Mr. Taylor talk modestly about his efforts – he characterized them as something he fell into – the question remains: What draws out the humanitarian impulse?

“I’m prime fodder for volunteer activity,” he said with a laugh.

He started as a government archivist, before working in federal-provincial relations as part of the Privy Council Office, including constitutional advisory work during discussions with provinces under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Then he moved on to helping to organize programs such as Canada Remembers commemorating the service of the armed forces.

He retired early, with other work such as teaching U.S. history for years at Carleton University spilling over into advisory-committee work on Anglican studies for Ottawa’s Saint Paul University and producing a series of interfaith programs on Vision TV, he said.

“I’ve always been involved in projects and getting things going,” he says. Much of those have had a charitable bent. “I’m a child of the ‘60s, which might explain some of the focus.

“It’s also augmented by the fact that my father was a union organizer. So, I was always very much aware of that side of things. I don’t know if I come to it genetically, but I also listened to a lot of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.”

The refugee settlement group he now runs, which has had as many as 40 volunteers, is now helping other Syrians, including a young man currently in hiding in Beirut; a grandmother, a mother and two children trying to get out of another location in Lebanon; a neurosurgeon with two kids also trying to leave Lebanon and others, Mr. Taylor said.

“I know some people who throw up their hands,” he said, noting the millions fleeing Syria, let alone the tens of millions of refugees globally. But “we’ve got applications for a total of 20 refugees we’re sponsoring now. That’s 20 fewer that are out there.”

His urban neighbourhood of Old Ottawa South is close to Carleton University and leans toward a strong sense of community, Mr. Taylor said.

The group eventually raised $80,000 by linking various volunteer and church groups, getting support from the local community and receiving positive local media publicity, Mr. Taylor said. “Our area, it’s not a wealthy area, but people are comfortable. Retired people have time, and they have a great commitment. Instead of playing golf, they’re driving refugee families to the dentist,” Mr. Taylor said.

Carol Wolkove, 63, in Toronto also treats humanitarian work as simply something she does. The type of retiree, she says, who when asked to list hobbies on a questionnaire would write “community work.” She describes the time running errands with a family of Syrian newcomers to Canada as just doing what’s needed.

She has a car. It’s as simple as that, she said. Driving someone to meet a social worker or to a donated clothing outlet is easy.

She also volunteers at Lifeline Syria, which matches refugee families with sponsorship groups which then settle the families. “What I say when I volunteer somewhere is, ‘What can I do here that is most useful to you?’”

She dismisses the idea that her past career as a labour lawyer has much bearing on her volunteer work. Yet for much of her career, she was involved with advocacy issues, particularly for seniors. She has also been involved with past refugee work. Twenty years ago, it was bringing a Bosnian family impacted by the Balkans war to Canada. Forty years ago, it was assisting a Vietnamese family, she said.

Mr. Taylor says he doesn’t delve into motives of why people volunteer. “I think there is a humanitarian impulse. There is a sense of giving back. People remember their own situation or their family situation,” Mr. Taylor said.

What’s clear from the start, however, is that aiding a refugee family eventually ends. They become settled. The volunteer group moves on. A sense of personal connection, though, stays.

On his ties to the father of the Syrian family, “I’m 73, and he’s 43, different generations. We’re not going to be drinking buddies. He probably considers me some sort of father figure, which is fair enough,” Mr. Taylor said. “Maybe family is a better analogy than friendship.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling for Carol Wolkove.

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