Thousands of Canadians are hoping to offer their help, hard work and even their homes to Syria's war refugees in coming months.
Refugee-resettlement groups say they are seeing a charitable outpouring sweep across the country, as ordinary citizens take the initiative to do what they can. Clergy, corporations and union halls are pushing "private sponsorship" coalitions, as are big-city mayors such as Toronto's John Tory and Calgary's Naheed Nenshi.
The hope is that such partnerships will facilitate the flow of asylum seekers to Canada, even as Ottawa's officials are being criticized for bottlenecks that can bog down the process.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has pointed to a policy that commits to the Canadian government and Canadian citizens resettling more than 10,000 such refugees within the next three years. Yet he is under growing pressure from critics who charge that this amounts to too little, too late. "We can and will do more," Mr. Alexander told CTV's Question Period on Sunday.
A photo of a drowned Syrian toddler lying prone on a Turkish beach last week focused the world's attention on the horrible human cost of a five-year-old civil war. Political leaders have come under fire for not doing enough to ease the flows of migrants making an exodus from war-ravaged Syria.
Paul Clarke, executive director of a group called Action Réfugiés Montréal, said in an interview that Quebeckers are now calling him from towns he has never heard of. "There's a real groundswell of desire to help Syrians somehow," he said. "There has been a sea change."
He explained that, for 2 1/2 years, he had only ever had one person call him about sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. Then, late last week, a dozen people contacted him to ask about just that – including a woman who came into his office and abruptly started describing the layout of her house.
Mr. Clarke says that he now has to temper the expectations of would-be sponsors. "I'm telling people this is going to be a two-year project," he said, explaining how much time the application process can take. "This is a job."
Refugees can arrive to Canada via United Nations, federal government and private sponsorship programs. Under the latter, sponsors may first have to raise $20,000 to $50,000 to bring over a family, while vowing to support its members for a year after they arrive.
Federal officials vet the suitability of candidate families and their sponsors. It's a complex process, but Toronto-based groups say their orientation sessions are now filling up within a few hours of being announced.
"There have been incredible offers of assistance," says Naomi Alboim of Lifeline Syria. She says her group, which started its work just this past June, is getting thousands of visitors to its website.
A professor at Queen's University, she practises what she preaches. She is working with a church congregation to bring over a large Syrian family currently living in a barn in Lebanon. The $45,000 cost of sponsorship took weeks to raise earlier this summer. But "if we were doing the fundraising today, it would probably be in a day," she says.
Prof. Alboim said that the publicity surrounding the photo of the Syrian toddler has "galvanized people." But because public interest can wane, she is urging that more federal officials be dispatched to process applications quickly. "If they don't respond, and things go on for months and months and months," she says "then that's when we might lose people."
Similar calls to action are arising from other levels of government. In a press scrum last week, Calgary's mayor pressed Mr. Alexander to move more quickly. "I'd like to have the answer to one question from him: How many Syrian refugees are here?" said Mr. Nenshi. "The answer changes everyday."
Toronto's mayor has also been outspoken about the need for Canadians to help Syrian refugees. Yet he is not criticizing the federal government. When asked why, a spokeswoman for Mr. Tory e-mailed The Globe to say that "the mayor's focus is on encouraging Canadian city-dwellers, especially Torontonians, to step up."