A movement to welcome and resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees was launched in Toronto Wednesday, aiming to rekindle the spirit that brought tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to this country a generation ago.
Lifeline Syria hopes to recruit and train small groups of citizens to become sponsors for refugees and ease their transition out of what the group called the biggest humanitarian emergency of our times.
Toronto Mayor John Tory spoke in support of the project and called on the mayors of Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver to encourage similar grassroots initiatives in their own cities.
"This is not only what we're about, but it's what we can do and what we've proven we can do," Mr. Tory said. He described meeting some of the Vietnamese refugees in 1979 as one of the most remarkable experiences of his life. "Let's show we can do this again for the Syrian refugees," he added.
Dr. Joseph Wong, founding president of the Chinese Canadian National Council, was vice-chair of Operation Lifeline in 1979. On Wednesday he urged citizens to step forward to assist in the Syrian relief effort – just as they did for the Vietnamese and other groups before them.
"At that time I had a lot of doubt about whether Canadians would rise to the challenge. I'm glad I was wrong," Dr. Wong said. "I have never been so proud to be Canadian."
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, where they live in often difficult circumstances.
Canada has pledged to resettle 10,000 Syrians over three years, and a significant portion are expected to be privately sponsored rather than government sponsored.
Canada is unique among countries receiving refugees in that citizens, in groups of five, can pledge to support a refugee by offering financial assistance, covering health-care costs and offering guidance in finding work and making the transition to Canadian life. That program was created in response to the Vietnamese migration of 1979. It was initially seen as a supplement to government sponsorship but has since grown substantially.
"Consider becoming a sponsor. You will have lots of help from existing agencies," said Ratna Omidvar, the chairwoman of Lifeline Syria and executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University. "This is something individual Canadians can do to contribute, because many people feel powerless in the face of these global crises."
Luai Mousli, 34, is a Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada just a week ago with his wife and daughter. His parents, two brothers and a sister remain in Jordan, where they fled after the war erupted four years ago. His brother, who was an officer in the army, defected rather than participate in attacks against citizens, which led the family to flee for fear of reprisals. Mr. Mousli said his old hometown is now occupied by government forces. Relatives and friends have been killed.
"It's a terrible situation," he said.
He trained as an IT engineer and said he hopes to find work in his field and settle into a life here in Canada. He went running in a Toronto park recently, the first time he had run recreationally in four years, and said he felt liberated. It reminded him of his last happy days in Syria, when his extended family were still together. He hopes they will reunite in Canada one day.