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Samantha Jackson of Lifeline Syria is pictured in Toronto on Friday September 4 , 2015.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Canadian universities are ramping up efforts to help Syrian refugees reach a safe haven here, but many are using existing programs rather than looking to a private sponsorship program that has caught Canadians' imagination.

"Universities feel a sense of solidarity with those who are under siege and the tens of thousands who are in camps and will be left there to rot without options unless people extend a hand," said Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada. "We want to have an on-the-ground response that is responsible and sustainable; this is people's lives that we are talking about."

On Tuesday, the University of Alberta announced it will offer 10 four-year scholarships to Syrian citizens. And in the last two weeks, 85 students arrived in Canada through World University Service Canada (WUSC), a long-established non-profit that runs international education programs, and includes student fundraising to bring refugees to Canadian campuses. Since it began in 1978, WUSC has brought 1,500 students to Canada, with 86 just this year.

In the last few months, it has identified another 19 Syrian students living in camps in Jordan and Lebanon that it would like to sponsor, and is talking to universities about how to get them to Canada quickly. Some could head to the University of Regina, which has pledged an increase in the number of student refugees it accepts.

The impact goes far beyond changing one person's life, said Chris Eaton, WUSC's executive director.

"In the camps in northern Kenya, in the Daab refugee camp, there are over 500,000 people. There is a real crisis of hope. There are people who were born there, whose parents were born in that camp. The key thing that a student refugee program does beyond the modest numbers it can bring over is that it sends a spark of hope about education and the opportunities it can provide," he said.

The recent moves by Canadian universities are the latest in a long history of universities offering refuge to scholars and students fleeing conflict zones, from Mexican institutions that opened their doors to those escaping the Spanish Civil War, to American scholars welcoming Jewish academics in the 1930s, to Hungarian refugees arriving in Canada after the 1956 revolution.

More recently, German universities began providing Syrian students with accommodation and pocket money in addition to a free university education years before the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi galvanized the world. And in Turkey, universities have waived fees for Syrian refugees.

So far, Ryerson University in Toronto has gone furthest. In July, it partnered with Lifeline Syria, a non-profit group that wants to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees in Toronto through private sponsors. (The University of Toronto is also beginning to work on doing the same.)

Ryerson initially set a target of sponsoring 10 families. In just over a month, it had recruited sponsors for 11 families, said Wendy Cukier, vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson and a member of the founding committee of Lifeline Syria.

Each group includes financial sponsors – like Steven Murphy, dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management and alumni and journalist Valerie Pringle – as well as teams of students who are preparing for the refugees' resettlement.

"Nursing students are becoming experts in refugee care. They're learning how to get an OHIP card, where to find a family doctor who is accepting new refugee patients. Others are looking at 'how do you open a bank account when you have almost no ID,'" said Samantha Jackson, the volunteer co-ordinator for the Ryerson effort and a PhD student in public policy at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Finding the right partners will be key for those universities that decide to set up private sponsorship groups, Mr. Eaton said. The number of people living in refugee camps who are qualified for higher education is overwhelming, particularly in the Middle East.

"It's critical for us to advertise broadly in the camps and with very clear criteria, and to have as open and transparent a process as possible. If we don't, it can lead to resentment, instability and even violence," he said.

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