Dhaka, Bangladesh
A man and 200 refugees

Off the track

A man and 200 refugees

One Canadian businessman decided he could do more for desperate Syrians fleeing their war-torn country. So he bankrolled an Ontario town’s resettlement of over 200 refugees. Jim Estill was growing frustrated. Over the summer of 2015, the business executive from the southwestern Ontario town of Guelph watched the Syrian refugee crisis unfold a half a world away, night after night on the evening news. “I didn’t think people were doing enough things fast enough,” he says. So Estill, chief executive of home appliance company Danby, devised a plan. He would put up CA$1.5m (US$1.1m/£910,000) of his own money to bring over 50 refugee families to Canada, and co-ordinate a community-wide effort to help settle them into their new life. It would be a volunteer-driven project, but organised like a business. Volunteer directors led multiple teams, each in charge of a different aspect of settling newcomers. Canada allows private citizens, along with authorised sponsorship groups, to directly sponsor refugees by providing newcomers with basic material needs like food, clothing, housing, and support integrating into Canadian society. But Estill was looking to make a big impact, quickly. “I know how to scale things,” says Estill, who made his fortune as an entrepreneur, and previously worked as a director at Research in Motion, best known for producing the BlackBerry mobile phone. Estill would be the money man, but he needed partners. So he brought together 10 different faith-based organisations that were already looking at ways to help those affected by the Syrian civil war. Sara Sayyed remembers the night her husband, president of the Muslim Society of Guelph, came back from that meeting and told her about Estill’s plan. “I was completely floored. I said: ‘Let’s get involved in this.’” In November 2015, the local Guelph paper published an article about the plan. It was translated into Arabic and spread around the Middle East. “People started emailing us directly from Turkey, from Lebanon, from within Syria, saying: ‘Can you help us? Can you do something?’” says Sayyed. As Estill recalls it: “At first you get one email. You get one or two and say: ‘Let’s see what I can do.’ Then it turns into a hundred. And then it’s very difficult.” Sayyed’s dining room table disappeared under a pile of sponsorship applications. Fifty-eight families were eventually selected. But that was just the first challenge.

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