Skip to main content

Jerry Topolski and his mother, Wanda Topolski, along with a friend want to sponsor a Syrian family to come to Canada.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Jerry Topolski filled out the paperwork two months ago to help a family from Syria resettle in Canada. And he had hoped that his application would pave the way for refugee children displaced by the civil war to attend school in north Toronto with his two young sons next week.

Instead, Mr. Topolski, a lawyer, is still waiting for his application to sponsor a family to be processed. He is frustrated, he said, because he is part of a group including his mother, Wanda Topolski, and Rebecca Durcan, a friend from law school, that is ready, willing and able to spend at least a year helping a displaced family integrate into Canadian society.

"We thought that if we put in an application in July, we'd be able to help children get into school for September with our kids," Mr. Topolski said in an interview on Thursday.

He has not been able to figure out who is responsible for what he describes as a bottleneck of applications. But his experience reveals that Canada's approach to Europe's growing migrant crisis might be too slow. The civil war in Syria has pushed almost four million people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Turkey. Most remain in refugee camps and hundreds of thousands have fled to Europe.

The federal government opened its doors wider in January for refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, announcing it will accept another 10,000 Syrians over three years. The government is expecting private organizations, such as church groups, to shoulder the majority of the burden for resettling these newcomers – a decision that is straining the capacity of these sponsors.

Groups of citizens, such as Mr. Topolski's, can pledge to support a refugee with financial assistance, covering health-care costs and offering guidance in finding work and making the transition to life in Canada. The program was created in response to the Vietnamese migration of 1979, when Canadian citizens brought 60,000 refugees to this country.

Mr. Topolski and his group applied in July to sponsor a family to Lifeline Syria, a movement that aims to secure private sponsorships for 1,000 refugees to resettle in the Greater Toronto Area over the next two years.

Ratna Omidvar, the chair of Lifeline Syria, said it takes nine to 12 months on average from the beginning of a sponsorship application to when refugees arrive in Canada.

Mr. Topolski said Lifeline sent his family a letter this week, saying there would be a meeting on Sept. 16 with a representative from the federal government.

"We have been writing and saying, 'We are ready to go,'" he said.

He said the tragic drowning death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi made the reality of the refugee crisis and how he and his group are trying to help hit home. "Until now," he said, "it was a bit of a paper exercise."

Alan, his brother Ghalib, 5, and his mother, Rehanna, all died after their boat capsized Wednesday off the Turkish coast as they tried to reach the Greek island of Kos. His father, Abdullah, survived. Photos of Alan's body washed ashore made front-page news.

Ms. Topolski said in an interview that she hopes the image of the little boy will galvanize policy makers to accelerate the process for handling refugee claims. She herself immigrated to Canada as a teenager in 1969. Her experience as a refugee from Poland was not comparable at all to what those fleeing Syria are enduring, she said. She was never in danger and she always had enough to eat.

"We were quite luxurious refugees," she said.

But just like back in the late 1960s, when the Canadian government was a "little bit afraid" of who it was letting into the country, she worries that the process for handling applications is getting bogged down this time around because of fears that Syrians pose a potential danger to Canada.

"They are just like us," she said, "and we should not look for excuses not to let them in."

With a report from Oliver Sachgau

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe