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A volunteer at Lifeline Syria takes a call regarding a sponsorship inquiry as project manager Alexandra Kotyk, left, works off her phone at the Lifeline Syria in Toronto on Sept. 4, 2015. Six board members resigned Monday due to frustration with other executive members.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

One of the most prominent groups resettling Syrian refugees in Toronto has been engulfed by internal bickering that led to the mass exodus of its executive director and half of its board this week.

Lifeline Syria announced Monday that executive director Sheona McGraw and five board members resigned in protest over how the non-profit was run. Many of the people who left are prominent members of the Toronto refugee sponsorship community, including a university professor, former journalist and immigrant services director.

Some of the now-resigned board members said they decided to walk away following a deadlock over governance of the organization.

"The group that basically remains there was more of an approach that was hands-on with staff. The other group – the group that resigned – basically felt there was interfering with staff, that we needed to define those rules more clearly. And in fact, it frustrated the new executive director to the extent that she quit," said Mario Calla, a resigned board member and executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services in Toronto.

While Ms. McGraw did not provide comment to The Globe and Mail, former board members said she grew increasingly frustrated with some of the executive. Ms. McGraw was hired as the organization's first executive director on Feb. 1. During her short stint in the role, former board members said she put in long days, much of which were spent dealing with other board members meddling in her job.

"There were people in that other faction that would come in and kind of tell her how to do her job," said Peter Goodspeed, a former board member. "You can't work 12 hours a day with somebody yelling at you."

Mr. Goodspeed, a retired journalist, said the board could not agree on how it would work with the Lifeline Syria staff and so five members quit for the betterment of the organization.

"The members on the board that were in constant conflict with them all of the time said 'Okay, well we'll leave it to you to run it. And we'll step aside. We don't want to do anything to jeopardize the way the operation's running.'"

Malaz Sebai, who still sits on the executive, said the remaining board members just wanted to share their experience with the staff.

"One thing that is important to have is that oversight because it's such a young organization and board members are a wealth of experience, knowledge," Mr. Sebai said.

Queen's University professor Naomi Alboim, one of the original founders of Lifeline Syria, said that, in retrospect, the organization should have spent more time developing its governance rules. When it was clear to her that the divisions among the board would not be resolved, she made the "very difficult" decision to step down as well.

Wendy Cukier, founder of Ryerson University's Diversity Institute, and public relations consultant Maureen Shaughnessy Kitts also resigned after only weeks on the board. Both women were hesitant to speak in detail about the board's problems, given their short stints on it.

The resigned board members say they still support Lifeline Syria's work and hope it succeeds.

"We really do support Lifeline Syria. Everybody's put an awful lot of effort into it and we wish them well and want to do everything we can to make sure it works," Mr. Goodspeed said.

Lifeline Syria launched in June, 2015, with a goal of recruiting, training and assisting sponsorship groups to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees over the following two years. Recently-appointed Senator Ratna Omidvar helped found the organization, but did not comment on the resignation of the executive director and board members.

Lifeline Syria chair Frank Palmay said that while the recent departures are "disappointing," they will not affect the organization's work.

"What has not changed, however, is our commitment to trying to do our part to relieve one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today," Mr. Palmay said in an e-mail statement.

He also expressed a deep appreciation for all former board members' dedication.

The group is searching for a new executive director, as Ms. McGraw's resignation is effective May 26, and has started recruiting new board members.

Lifeline Syria is actively working with 235 groups sponsoring Syrian refugees to resettle in Canada. Its work kicked into high gear late last year when the Liberal government announced that it would resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of February, and continues as the government accepts thousands more throughout this year.

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