Ripple Refugee Project is made up of average Torontonians resolved not just to sponsor Syrian refugees arriving here but to befriend and aid them once they’re here.
“Where is the heart?”
That’s what exasperated Mayor John Tory wanted to know this week when some members of his executive committee questioned spending $600,000 to welcome Syrian refugees to Toronto and help them settle. That money is just a drop in the city’s $10-billion bucket. We have cash to drag Muskoka chairs and planters onto John St., and spurt water from underground fountains in Nathan Phillips Square, but not to welcome people who arrive to our city with nothing but bruising memories and loneliness? “Where is the heart?”I’ll tell you where it is. It’s beating around kitchen tables across the city. In the past three months, more than 220 groups have formed and signed up with the fledgling organization Lifeline Syria to personally sponsor refugees. Most have committed to raising $27,000 — the minimum required to support a refugee family of four for a year. They’ve promised to prop that family up onto its feet for a year, setting up the basics — a place to live, furniture, OHIP cards, English lessons . . . And they’ve pledged to be their first friends, for life is more than basics. It is walks along the boardwalk and visits to the museum, and learning the difference between Vietnamese pho and Chinese ramen. Most of these people are average citizens, like you and me. They haven’t done this before. They are learning, as they go. They are sure, only, that this is the right thing to do. “We needed to do something,” said Andrew FitzGerald, an online art-gallery owner who organized a meeting at his Riverdale home in May. Around 35 people crammed into his living room for tea and presentations from three experts on the practicalities and emotions of sponsorship. Eight people signed up that day. Over the next few weeks, another eight people joined, “most of them, I didn’t know,” FitzGerald said. They call themselves the Ripple Refugee Project. “I couldn’t walk around another day. Here I am getting Americanos and people are drowning,” said Dr. Raghu Venugopal, an emergency-room doctor who has volunteered on five missions to war-torn African countries with Médecins Sans Frontières. You’d think all that life-saving would exempt him from feelings of guilt stirred up by that photo of little Alan Kurdi, lying on the Turkish beach as though he was napping. Not so. “You have to ask yourself, do you really believe in the notion that all life is equal?” said Venugopal, 41. When his colleagues inside University Health Network’s emergency rooms heard about Ripple, they pledged $41,000 in a single week. Add emergency rooms to the list of places where the city’s heart resides. Over the past few months, this group of strangers-becoming-friends have grappled with some of the same issues stumping politicians. Is it really their role to do this? What kind of precedent would it set? What if the family they sponsor has diametrically different values to theirs? “They’ll be worrying about their children and schooling, finding jobs, getting a family doctor and finding food they like. The shared humanity that comes out of it will quickly overcome the surface differences between our two groups,” said FitzGerald, 52. A couple weeks ago, Venugopal got a call from Alexandra Kotyk, project manager of Lifeline Syria. She told him about a Syrian family, approved by the Canadian government as refugees, Ripple could sponsor.The hitch — it has eight members, double the number they were expecting.They would need double the manpower, double the money and double the heart. Plus, the grandfather has health challenges. He is in a wheelchair. The group’s response was summed up by Nancy Graham, a public health nurse: “We’ve struck gold.” Using your heart feels good.This week, Ripple members drafted an agreement with the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre to formally sponsor the family, and Ryerson University which has offered logistical support and its charitable status. Kotyk plans to submit all the paperwork to Citizenship and Immigration Canada next week. It will be Lifeline Syria’s second formal application. The group expects to welcome the three generations of this Syrian family within weeks. They are now frantically sourcing furniture and rental housing. Helping just one family seems like a drop in another bucket. More than four million people have fled Syria’s civil war. But they called themselves Ripple for a reason. They hope to inspire other groups of regular Torontonians to follow suit — with money, sweat and yes, heart. “There’s another ripple effect,” says FitzGerald. “When you change someone’s life for the better, that reverberates through society.” Catherine Porter can be reached at email@example.com