Small Cities Pledge Support for Syrian Refugees

by Don Curry in North Bay, Ontario

Canada’s big city mayors have been vocal in their support for doing more to expedite the process of bringing Syrian refugees to Canada – as they should be.

Large cities have large capacities to do more – to raise more money and sponsor and settle more refugees. What I have not seen reported so far in the national media is the growing support in smaller communities to do more as well.

In our part of Northeastern Ontario we have two small cities, North Bay and Timmins, eager to sponsor refugees, but unfamiliar with the process.

North Bay Mayor Al McDonald started a Facebook campaign to fundraise the approximately $30,000 necessary to sponsor a family for a year and in its first couple of days he had $10,000 in commitments. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]The Syrian crisis has been going on for years and has been well documented, but this photograph hit a nerve around the world and changed everything.[/quote]

In Timmins, City Councillor Pat Bamford plans to raise the issue at the September 14 city council meeting and propose that the city itself allocate funds toward sponsorship.

Our settlement agency, the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre and the Timmins & District Multicultural Centre, will provide guidance and support for both initiatives.

This recent municipal engagement is, of course, a result of the powerful photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the coast of Turkey. The Syrian crisis has been going on for years and has been well documented, but this photograph hit a nerve around the world and changed everything.

The small city challenge

Some may question the capacity of immigrant and refugee settlement agencies across Canada to settle and help integrate large numbers of refugees.

What they may not know is that many front-line settlement workers are immigrants or refugees themselves, and have the compassion, knowledge and resources to get the job done.

When I look at the names behind the Toronto group, Lifeline Syria, the ones I know – Ratna Omidvar, Naomi Alboim, Jehad Aliweiwi, Mario Calla, Carolyn Davis – have vast settlement sector knowledge, and I am sure have no doubts about the capacity of the sector to out-perform. Lifeline Syria is in capable hands.

Smaller cities don’t have the wealth of expertise that Lifeline Syria has, but they have knowledgeable leaders in the settlement sector and I hope they are being put to good use across the country.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Settling Syrian families in communities where there are no other Syrians will be a challenge.[/quote]

This is a new issue for many smaller city municipal leaders and that’s good for the settlement sector in those cities.

Some settlement agencies in smaller cities have extensive experience settling refugees, while others have little or none. However, they have experience settling newcomers and this is an opportunity for them to provide leadership.

Settling Syrian families in communities where there are no other Syrians will be a challenge.

In North Bay we have none on our client list and in Timmins only one family. However, North Bay has a mosque (a high proportion of Syria’s population is Muslim) and Timmins has a group of Muslims actively trying to create one, so at least there is some religious commonality.

An Anglican minister dropped in to my office to see what she and her church could do to help, and North Bay’s mayor has approached the United Church for support. Ordinary citizens are e-mailing their moral and financial support, so it is gratifying to see communities come together.

Not everyone supportive

On the other hand, online comments about Mayor McDonald’s request for funds to support a family were not all positive.

The online world attracts the ill informed with strident opinions, and they were out in full force. Comments ranged from religion-based to ‘foreigners coming in and taking “our” jobs’ sentiments, and they were neither literate nor enlightened.

It will always be a work in progress to educate people about how immigrants and refugees make Canada a stronger nation. This work has been led by immigrant settlement agencies and local immigration partnerships and now there is an opportunity for others to get involved in the discussion.

Leaders have to lead, whether they are municipal politicians, church leaders, or settlement agencies. It is gratifying to see that in our corner of Canada, and in the big cities, they are doing just that.


Don Curry is the Executive Director of the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre, Co-Chair of the North Bay Newcomer Network Local Immigration Partnership Initiative, Timmins Local Immigration Partnership and northern region board member for OCASI. He is also a board member of Pathways to Prosperity, a national immigration research organization.

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Don Curry was the founding executive director of the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre and now serves as board chair. He is currently in a program to become  a regulated Canadian immigration consultant.