Toronto, Canada - A small, hungry crowd gathers at First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, laying out a festive potluck feast. The folding tables overflow with samosas and sushi, cookies and sweets, and salad bowls. People in line - some wearing slick business suits, others in hijabs - load up their plates while talking to their companions.

It's December in Toronto, and the Christmas season is in full swing. But this isn't your typical holiday party: it's actually an official meeting of the Toronto chapter of Save a Family from Syria, a multi-faith group working to bring Syrian refugee families to Toronto and Kingston.

"People are coming together tonight to have a little bit of a celebration," says the Rev. Shawn Newton, the minister of First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. "It's to mark that we're actually getting somewhere, doing something together."

For the past year, the congregation has partnered with the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) to sponsor five Syrian families to resettle in Toronto. Although this is a festive gathering, there's a sense of urgency in the air. The group has just received some official news from the government: three refugee families will be arriving any time between now and New Years' Day.
Across the country, Canadian citizens are sponsoring Syrian refugees and helping them resettle in Canada, under the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.

Applying as "Groups of Five," five or more private sponsors agree to provide financial support for all the refugees' basic expenses (including housing, food and transportation), usually for one year or until the refugees become self-sufficient, whichever comes first.

It's estimated that privately-sponsored refugees will form around 40 percent of the 25,000 refugees from Syria that the Canadian government plans to settle in by February 2016.

Annette Wilde, one of the leaders of Save a Family from Syria [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 

"There was a build-up of media around the tragedy of Syria," says Annette Wilde, one of the leaders of Save a Family from Syria. "I'd be watching the news, and I'd have to turn it off."

A long history of helping refugees 

It's part of the congregation's identity to welcome in a stranger and not really be hung up on religious difference.

Reverend Newton, First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

Motivated to take action, Wilde approached the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto with a sponsorship proposal in February 2015, which got "enormous approval". Such a positive reception wasn't surprising - refugee sponsorship is nothing new to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto.

As a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the Canadian government, the church has a long history of helping refugees, from Vietnam War draft dodgers (who were temporarily housed in the Parish Hall) to those fleeing turmoil in Central America in the 1980s.

"It's part of the congregation's identity to welcome in a stranger and not really be hung up on religious difference," Minister Newton says.

This time, the group has added a special twist: a focus on reuniting families.

The idea was to sponsor Syrian refugee individuals or families who are related to a Syrian Canadian family as many Syrian Canadians lack the financial means to sponsor their relatives who are living overseas in refugee camps.

"You get to not only sponsor a [refugee] family, but also help a Canadian Syrian family," says Wilde. "So we've been working with the families here to complete the application and identify what the needs are going to be when they arrive. After the 12 month period is over, we feel that there is a much greater chance of success because they have their families here."

Reuniting Syrian families  

Looking to find families, Wilde reached out to the Muslim Association of Canada to see if MAC would help identify Syrian Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area looking to reunite with relatives in need abroad.

"Part of the reason we've worked with MAC is to find people who already have connections here with family," says Newton. "It's an easier transition for them to make. More likely for them to be approved by Immigration Canada."

Partnering with a local Muslim association to find families was a natural next step, Newton explains, adding that the Unitarian faith embraces all religions and ideologies, valuing inclusion and drawing on diverse sources of wisdoms.

Muhammad Niazi, a lead volounteer representing the Muslim Association of Canada in the initiative [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera]

"It's a progressive religion that takes inspiration from the world's religions," says Newton. "This congregation is full of agnostics, atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Christians. We don't have a single religious source that we turn to. It's just as common for me read from Buddhist [text] than the Gospel of Luke on a Sunday morning."

Eager to participate, MAC appointed Muhammad Niazi as their volunteer lead for the initiative. A chartered accountant, Niazi's children attend a private school run by the association. Like Wilde, he too felt "shook up" by stories about Syria, and was compelled to act.

Christians and Muslims with 'a shared concern for humanity'

"What I really like about this programme is that it's a more sustainable solution," says Niazi. "People are making donations to organisations on the ground, which is important. But it's not really solving the problems on a permanent basis - it's helping them survive. At least the people coming to Canada, they have a chance to make a better life."

Whether the person is Christian, Muslim, Sunnis, Shia - it doesn't matter, the focus is on helping [refugee] families with young children.

Muhammed Niazi, Muslim Association of Canada  

Joining the project, Niazi was greeted by friendly faces and quickly discovered that differences in faith were largely irrelevant. Volunteers were drawn together by a "shared concern for humanity" rather than religious ideology.

"Whether the person is Christian, Muslim, Sunnis, Shia - it doesn't matter," says Niazi. "The focus is on helping [refugee] families with young children."

"We're bound together in a common desire to help people," concurs Newton. "[MAC] needed someone who was a sponsorship agreement holder. We needed someone who had ties to the Syrian community in Toronto, so that we could find applicants who would be most successful in the process. And so it was a very easy relationship to put together."


READ MORE on Syrian refugees: Life On Hold


Based on Citizenship and Immigration Canada's guidelines, a sponsor group must have a minimum of $27,000 to sponsor a family of four. To meet this benchmark, the group tackled the heavy task of fundraising, organising charity benefits and soliciting donations from their respective communities.

Meanwhile, MAC drew up a shortlist of sponsorship candidates. Together, the group reviewed applications and decided who would most likely succeed in the process.

"You have to really bring in people who are set up for success," says Niazi. "You don't want people to feel disenfranchised and not be able to cope or adjust. If you have somebody who's already here, even if it's a distant relative, that just adds to that success. All those things are really important."

To date, three Syrian refugee families have been approved for sponsorship, and are due to arrive in Canada imminently. With $170,000 raised in under a year, Save a Family from Syria recently received the congregation's approval to sponsor two additional families, bringing the total to five.

"We're now shifting our focus from fundraising onto execution," says Wilde.

At the potluck meeting, the group breaks bread together to celebrate their success, but more importantly, to make plans for the arriving Syrian refugee families [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera]

Tonight at this potluck meeting, the group breaks bread together to celebrate their success, but more importantly, to make plans for the arriving families. One apartment has been secured in a Toronto suburb, within walking distance from a community centre, school, and employment centre.

But there's plenty more preparation to do: from finding furniture to opening bank accounts to securing temporary housing for the other two families.

"There's a lot to take on in the first couple of weeks," says Wilde, who previously helped the Kingston chapter resettle several refugee families. "You have to figure out where they're going to live. And sometimes, you don't have the luxury of figuring that all out before they come."

"The [family's] relative is taking the lead in helping them resettle," says Niazi. "But there's so much that needs to get done. That's why we have the volunteers."

Luckily, Save a Family from Syria has a strong volunteer base, with 50 people divided into teams to undertake specific tasks.

Khadijah al-Dhabbi, a volunteer and a member of the Muslim Association of Canada [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera]

"This is a humanitarian crisis. I wanted to help with this project," says Khadijah al-Dhabbi, a volunteer and member of MAC. "We came as refugees as well, from Yemen. So that's something I can relate to.

"I want them to feel at home and like they can pick up the phone at two in the morning."

For those involved in the initiative, sponsorship isn't the only takeaway. As Newton explains, there's certainly potential for future collaboration between the Unitarian church and Toronto's Muslim community.

"In any given religion, we can be fairly siloed," says Newton. "But finding projects to work on together - that can bring you to trust and understand each other better, and then you have friendships to rely on. I feel like that's already happening."

"You learn how much more you have in common than not," says Niazi. "That's a very good lesson for everybody that's been involved in this initiative."

Source: Al Jazeera