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A photograph of late brothers Alan, left, and Ghalib Kurdi is displayed outside the home of their aunt Tima Kurdi, in Coquitlam, B.C. Alan, his older brother Ghalib and their mother Rehanna died as they tried to reach Europe from Syria.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The harrowing image of a dead Syrian toddler washed up on a beach has galvanized Canadians into action, triggering a surge in donations to refugee aid groups, while only a handful of donations from corporations has started to trickle in.

The recent response of individuals and muted reaction from companies come in contrast to generous donations to natural disasters such as April's devastating earthquake in Nepal or the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines.

Charity officials say moving people to this issue is more challenging, both because it's politically charged and because solutions are more difficult to nail down, leaving some searching for the best way to help.

"Syria has always been difficult to fundraise for," said Sean Wong, Oxfam Canada's director of fund development. "In Nepal we raised $1.4-million in a matter of weeks. Syria has not been that story at all. But in the past two days, we matched the amount of support we have seen all year for Syria."

Many aid groups said businesses had not yet donated to this cause, in contrast with other crises.

The plight of millions of Syrians fleeing their war-torn country largely flew under the radar in Canada until the picture of a lifeless Alan Kurdi appeared on front pages around the world. The three-year-old and most of his family drowned off Turkish shores as they tried to escape to Greece on a rubber dinghy.

Oxfam raised $26,000 for Syrian refugees this week, more than it had raised during the first eight months of this year. Care Canada raised $13,000 in two days. Save the Children, Red Cross and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, all reported a swell in donations and queries.

One Ontario law firm is raising money to sponsor a Syrian refugee family, and developing a guide for other firms to follow.

Goldblatt Partners LLP, which has offices in Toronto and Ottawa, is raising $30,000 to bring a family to Canada and help them settle when they arrive.

"Probably like many offices, this past week around the lunch table and in the hallways all anybody has been talking about is the crisis facing Syrian refugees," said Louis Century, an associate at the firm.

Goldblatt, which focuses on labour law and human rights law among other specialties, is partnering with Lifeline Syria, a Canadian organization that helps connect refugees with sponsors. Lifeline Syria is aiming to help 1,000 Syrian refugees settle in the Greater Toronto Area over the next two years.

Goldblatt expects it will require a considerable time commitment, from filling out paperwork to helping the family to settle. The firm has seen an outpouring of support in its first day. "The question we kept hearing over and over again, and within our own minds, was what can we do as individuals?" said Mr. Century.

In January, Stephen Harper's Conservative government pledged to take in a total of 11,300 Syrian refugees. So far, 2,374 have been admitted to Canada, according to the government.

Boris Wertz, a venture capitalist and father of four young children, said the picture prompted him into action.

"It hits pretty close to home," he said. "I have been following the crisis but the image of the dead Alan Kurdi has really shaken me and prompted me to finally act," he said.

Mr. Wertz immigrated to Canada from Germany 13 years ago after he sold his company to a Canadian firm. The Vancouver-based venture capitalist is now considering sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. "Donating money is always the easier job," he said.

The difficulty for aid groups has been in getting the cause of Syrian refugees to resonate with individual Canadians and corporations.

Humanitarian Coalition, which unites some of Canada's largest aid groups, launched an appeal for Syria in 2013 and struggled. "It wasn't one of our most successful appeals," said Nicolas Moyer, the coalition's executive director.

"The reality is, in the fundraising world, sometimes there is more focus on the rapid onset, high-profile natural disasters. Wars and conflicts raise the spectre of where funds are going," Mr. Moyer said. "Before this image, we hadn't gotten any calls about Syria for weeks."

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