I was shocked and saddened by the humanitarian crisis I saw unfolding in Syria. I watched and expected the world would step up and help, but nothing was happening — or as an impatient business person, it was not happening fast enough for me. So I decided to do something about it.

By way of background, I am a long-time business person in Guelph, a small city of 130,000 inhabitants. I had started my business from scratch and grown it to over $2 billion in sales. In the Guelph business community, I was well known. I give this background so people can understand why I was able to make calls and get things to happen. It also helps people to understand how I am used to building organizations and tend to think big. This explains why our effort was organized similar to a business (but all volunteer-run).

I called local clergy and nonprofit groups to a meeting: the Catholic church, Salvation Army, Lakeside Church/Hope House, Drop-in Centre, the Muslim Society of Guelph, and the Jewish synagogue. We met for one hour (I generally detest meetings so like to keep them short) where I laid out a plan to bring in 50 Syrian refugee families and asked if these groups would support me to help make it happen. The goal would be bringing in 50 families to safety; they would end up with jobs, pay their own rent, shop, and (eventually) speak English. The plan was to execute on that. Everyone said yes.

Three of those organizations really stepped up. I did not want to reinvent things; I only wanted to use their resources and systems that were already in place.

The Salvation Army agreed to orchestrate and deal with all the clothing, furniture and household items. We agreed to “fill their shelves” where they had shortages. So when they needed new socks and underwear, we did drives. Soon, those shelves overflowed. I should note that we tapped local businesses to help — not just religious organizations. By including the community at large, we were able to mobilize more help.

Hope House agreed to do the food; they are organized similarly to a food bank. Again, we agreed to fill their shelves as needed.

Estill photo article - 1 (dans le texte)
Guelph Refugee Forum volunteers sorting through donations for refugees at a warehouse (also donated). Photo: Guelph Refugee Forum.

The Muslim Society of Guelph had experience doing the paperwork and applications. They worked tirelessly filling in applications. They also organized the much-needed Arabic speakers. They filled in everything and helped with almost all aspects of this program. Generally, they did most of the work.

We organized the effort with 10 director positions; because everyone was a volunteer, we had two directors in each position. These would cover areas like education, health, finance, food and employment.

The most important position is the director of mentors. Each refugee family is assigned an English-speaking mentor family and an Arabic-speaking mentor family. These mentors are tasked with helping the families settle well. They have a checklist of things including riding the bus with the families and teaching them how to use the bus system, setting up a bank account, showing them where the markets and pharmacies are, etc. Furthermore, every two weeks, we prepare a scorecard to see how the families are adjusting. Do they need more ESL lessons? Perhaps an English tutor? Do they need a dentist? (More on the organization can be found on my blog.)

An organization was set up: Guelph Refugee Forum, led by Jaya James, who took a leave of absence from her work to put in a Herculean effort to make this happen. She set up the systems that allowed us to register and do police checks on over 800 volunteers. She would have been the CEO of this project; she did everything.

Running a project like this is really like being CEO at Danby Appliances. I don’t really do anything, I have many good people who do all the work. I orchestrate a bit and make a few calls when we need things done.

The organization was set up, but here was the problem: we were not getting the refugees. We had the applications in, but the government was not processing them. As of June 29, we still had only 13 of the 50 families we signed up to take.

This slowness has cost us momentum (and expense) and caused many problems. Jaya, who took a leave of absence, needed to return to her job on July 1. We needed to find a replacement who will work part-time. We had 50 households’ worth of furniture that we had asked gracious, civic-minded business people to donate space to store. Now we are wearing out our welcome. We’ve had to move furniture — imposing on our volunteers. Even volunteers lose motivation if they feel there is no purpose in their work.

This slowness has cost us momentum (and expense) and caused many problems.

We swamped the Salvation Army and they ended up having to rent extra space to store clothing, and we had to move much of it.

One of our directors of transportation, Ed Aspinall, was working full-time on the project but needed to move on with his life, so we had to replace him. Moving all the furniture is a big job.

We had landlords holding space vacant for us. Their generosity cost them and we have asked them to rent to other people. The housing market in Guelph is fairly tight, so losing those spots will be a challenge to the directors in charge of housing.

People ask me why I committed to bringing over the families. In the face of a humanitarian crisis, I felt strongly that we needed to do the right thing. As CEO of Danby Appliances, I use this mantra every day with my business team. I could not very well sit idly by and not lead by example. I cannot ask my team to do something unless I am willing to step up and do my part.

We did not think the challenge in this program would be getting the refugees to Canada.

Photo: Radiokafka / Shutterstock.com

This article is part of the Refugee Integration special feature.


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Jim Estill
Jim Estill is CEO of Danby Appliances in Guelph. Before joining Danby he started a tech distribution company and grew it to $2 billion in sales.

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