Skip to main content

Virginia Johnson is a Toronto-based illustrator, textile designer and entrepreneur.

For many months, I, like many other Canadians, have been working on privately sponsoring a refugee family from Syria. There have been many meetings, information nights, applications and the formation of volunteer teams to help with settlement. Frequently, there are up to 25 members in one sponsoring group to help one family get an apartment, find a job and enroll their children in school.

In the meantime, government-assisted refugees, or GARs, have been quietly filling hotels across Canada. In Toronto alone, there are currently about 950 refugees in four different hotels, waiting for their lives to begin. They are safe and have a place to sleep, but otherwise they have very little. Children mill about the lobbies with nothing to do. They will stay in hotels for at least a few weeks while local settlement agencies look for housing.

I have spent some time in one such hotel, and it has become very clear that we are creating two classes of refugees. The privately sponsored refugees that my friends and I have been fretting about will be amply taken care of. Research shows that refugees who are privately sponsored have much more success long-term. They learn English, find jobs and integrate into society more easily. They have many people checking in with them and using their networks. It's the GARs who urgently need our help.

On a recent visit, a father approached us in the lobby. Both of his young daughters were experiencing respiratory distress. Because he doesn't speak any English, he couldn't figure out how to call the settlement agency or how to get a taxi. He didn't know if he had the right papers. Luckily, we had a car, and were able to drive them to the emergency department. The children were admitted for two nights, so we have been taking meals for the parents and translators to the hospital. Without personal connections, these people face a confusing and unfamiliar environment. Settlement agencies are not enough.

So, how can we help? There are two ways to do this.

First, Immigration Minister John McCallum should open up the GARs to the hundreds of private sponsorship groups who are ready and waiting to be matched with overseas refugees. The government can transfer the paperwork to the private groups through their sponsorship agreement holders. The hotels will empty quickly, and the families can move on with their lives. This gives the settlement agencies more time to prepare for the next influx, and provides an opportunity for more sponsorship groups to come together and for existing groups to potentially sponsor a second family. Lifeline Syria has indicated its support for this and can help to facilitate it.

Second, while sponsorship groups are signing up with refugee families, Canadians can step up and become involved in the lives of the GARs. Settlement agencies have their hands full, and many are eager for help from volunteers. Mosques are holding welcome dinners and are "matching" refugee families with members of their congregation. Social-media-savvy volunteers encounter a man with infant twins in the lobby, and a double-stroller materializes within an hour. Other groups are setting up clothing drives and toy drives in hotel ballrooms, or taking families to a local playground. Individuals can find out which local settlement agencies are responsible for these refugees in their area, and ask the best way to help.

We will be able to avert a crisis if both of these initiatives are adopted quickly. There is real urgency. Opening up GARs to private sponsorship groups is an obvious and sensible decision. In the meantime, Canadians can forge personal connections with refugees in hotels through the settlement agencies, and offer families a real lifeline.

To join the initiative to assist government-assisted refugees, please e-mail

Interact with The Globe