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Canada Ryerson University joins program to bring Syrian refugees to Toronto

Marianne Nguyen is team leader for Lifeline Syria, a Ryerson University program to bring Syrian refugees to the GTA.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

It's been 40 years since a 12-year-old Marianne Nguyen arrived in Canada without her parents and began adjusting to a completely different life. Now, she wants to help a refugee family from Syria do the same.

Ms. Nguyen is heading up one of 11 teams from Ryerson University that are part of Lifeline Syria, a movement that aims to secure private sponsorship for 1,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the GTA over the next two years.

Ms. Nguyen, who trained as an architect and now works as a designer, was among the first wave of people who left South Vietnam as it came under communist control in 1975, followed by more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada between 1979 and 1981. She travelled across the ocean to Montreal, living with nine of her siblings between the ages of 10 and 25, until her parents came and reunited the family – 15 children in total – in 1979.

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Helping a Syrian family through the challenges of settling in Canada, Ms. Nguyen said, is a way of reaching out after all the opportunities she was given.

"Immigrants are very resourceful and resilient," she added. "There will be problems, but we will deal with it as it comes along … We are a lot more settled, so we would be in a position to help."

Ryerson's call for support of the Lifeline Syria program has attracted nearly 100 student and faculty volunteers so far, who will help resettle 44 refugees.

Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson's Ted Rogers School of Management, is also the chair of the Lifeline Syria steering committee. She said she hopes the support from the university community will spur other institutions and companies to rally around the cause.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said in January that Canada would resettle 10,000 refugees from Syria over the next three years. In 2013, the country committed to taking 1,300 refugees by the end of 2014, but that goal wasn't met until March of this year. It's unclear how many of the 10,000 Syrians Canada has committed to taking have come to the country so far, but the government initially said 60 per cent will be privately sponsored, and the remaining refugees will receive government assistance.

As of July 9, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that more than four million refugees had left Syria, and more than seven million people were displaced within the country.

Lifeline Syria recalls the efforts of Operation Lifeline in 1979, which brought together groups of private sponsors to help bring refugees to Canada from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Each group leader this time around has personally committed to financially supporting a family of four for a year with fundraising help, and the teams will help the families get access to housing and health care, as well as offering a social network of support.

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Ryerson got involved in the cause when Ms. Omidvar and Wendy Cukier, founder of Ryerson's Diversity Institute, reached out to colleagues to ask for sponsors. After a "flurry of e-mails" over a single weekend, 11 team leaders – including the university president and provost – had signed up.

Ms. Cukier remembers the Vietnamese family she helped sponsor in 1980, arriving in Toronto in identical blue government-issued parkas. It was February and her team had to find the family – a couple and their cousin – housing, as well as language and job resources. On top of that, the couple were expecting a baby, and Ms. Cukier's team had to make sure they got them the care they needed through the pregnancy.

The family was eventually able to sponsor more of their relatives, and Ms. Cukier said she has watched them and their children flourish.

"You can see the next generation doing amazingly well, and you can see the ripple effects of the work that was done," she added.

Now, Ms. Cukier has signed on again to lead a team that will resettle a Syrian family. The groups haven't yet been finalized, but she envisions them as a network of people with knowledge in different areas that the refugees will need: Arabic speakers, health care experts and housing advocates, among others.

"One of the nice things about having 11 groups at Ryerson means we can all share expertise and services and access to information amongst each other. We can work out strategies together around housing and access to health care and language training," Ms. Cukier said. "Back in 1980 ... we really were trying to navigate all these things on our own."

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Ms. Omidvar said signing on to the project is a serious commitment that will be challenging, but the difference the teams could make is tangible.

"The situation in Syria is dire. When I see the pictures of what is happening, when I understand it's four million people, it just boggles my mind," she said. "As an individual, I don't know what I can to do solve that geopolitical problem. But ... I know I can do this. In Canada, we have the capacity. We can do this."

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