Elizabeth Bromstein apologizes for crying. She seems to do it all the time when she thinks about the refugees. And as part of a Toronto group that is sponsoring a few of them, she thinks about the refugees a lot.
She thinks about the body of that little boy lying face down on a beach. She thinks about her husband's grandfather, who hid dozens of Jewish children in his home during the Nazi occupation of Holland. She thinks about the St. Louis, the ship full of desperate Jews fleeing Germany that many countries, including Canada, turned way in 1939.
And she thinks about the heavy responsibility she and her friends are taking on: housing, clothing and settling a group of strangers from a far-off, war-torn land.
Her daughter, a toddler, comes over to give her a hug. She puts down the phone to give the girl some milk, then picks it up again. "You have to catch them when they fall," she says of the refugees, "and these are people that don't even know who you are."
Sponsorship is a complex, tiring, time-consuming process, but, summoning up their better selves, people such as Ms. Bromstein and her friends are and pouring their hearts into the effort.
For a long while, there was not much most ordinary people could do about the refugee crisis but look on in dismay or send some money to a charity group.
The Trudeau government's push to take in 25,000 refugees by the end of February, with thousands of them expected through private sponsorship, offers a way to do something practical and meaningful. Scores of groups are jumping at the chance. Here, at last, is a chance to make a difference, however modest.
All across the city, in school cafeterias, church basements and living rooms, people are making to-do lists, filling out reams of paperwork, organizing fundraisers and stuffing bags with used clothing and linens for the new arrivals. It's an inspiring example of what motivated communities can do when everyone pulls together.
Ms. Bromstein's downtown group, Westside Refugee Response, has collected about $16,000 to support the newcomers, much of it from a fundraiser they held this week at Lula Lounge on Dundas Street West.
Along with Ms. Bromstein, an editor, and her husband, David Jager, a composer, the group includes musicians, real estate agents, a business owner, a clothing designer, a doctor and a lawyer. They work through their tasks by meeting in Ms. Bromstein's Edwardian-era west-end house or exchanging a blizzard of reply-all e-mails.
There is a lot to do: find jobs, schools and day cares for the newcomers; get them driver's licences, health cards and social insurance cards. They will need a place to stay while they find something of their own. Ms. Bromstein says she has space in her house. They will need to be shown how to use public transit and where to shop for food.
Like many sponsorship groups, Ms. Bromstein's is working half in the dark. Ottawa's hurry-up intake process means that details and schedules are a work in progress. She doesn't know yet which refugees Westside will get or exactly when they will arrive. The group hasn't been matched with a refugee family.
Sometimes, it all seems a bit futile – helping just one family among all the refugee millions. But one is better than none. "Even though it's a drop in the bucket, it will make a difference to the people we're helping," says Ms. Bromstein, 43. "Whether you believe in God or not, it would be hard to meet your maker if you hadn't done anything."
Uptown at Davisville and Yonge, Michelle Kassel, 41, is busy organizing another sponsorship group. When she saw that picture of Alan Kurdi, the boy on the beach, "I very irrationally decided I had to do something about it." She sent an e-mail to people in the neighbourhood. About half responded: a doctor, a couple of educators, a psychologist, stay-at-home moms, recent immigrants. It is a typical Toronto quilt of nationalities and religious backgrounds: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew.
Within days they had formed a group. Then, they linked up with a local church. Soon, they realized what a lot of work it was going to be. They needed to go through police background checks. They needed to raise money. They needed to get special training in the sponsorship system.
Ms. Kassel has put in "dozens and dozens" of hours on top of her work as a lawyer and mother of a school-aged daughter. She doesn't mind. "We are giving a family another chance to raise their children in a safe and free society that we take for granted."
With the help of big contributions from generous members, the Davisville group has raised $50,000. Now it is divvying up all the other work. A couple of people are working on housing, a couple on health care, a couple on household items, and so on.
As much as the chance to help people in need, Ms. Kassel relishes working together with her neighbours for a good cause that has everyone fired up. "Together we are bringing out the best in each other and really coming together." It is not often that people have that kind of experience. They are likely to remember it for a lifetime.