As Canada prepares to welcome tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, I am struck by the opportunity this offers our country — an opportunity to not only help those who need it, but also to enrich our communities and grow our economy.
Whenever we think about refugees, most of us conjure up depressing images. We picture endless lines of people escaping conflict on foot, with only the possessions they can carry, or boats packed to the brim with desperate women and children, or crowded UNHCR tent camps that were meant to be temporary, but are, in fact, decades-old ghettos. But what if there were another image? One where refugees are welcomed into communities in developed countries, making a positive contribution to the economy, while enriching those communities with their cultures.
The image you would conjure up would be one of several refugee stories that are uniquely Canadian. Take the Hadhad family. They are exemplary of an entrepreneurial spirit that benefits the economy.
In 2016, the Hadhad family fled Syria after their chocolate factory in Damascus was destroyed during a bombing. After years in limbo in Lebanon, they resettled to Nova Scotia and were greeted by sponsors who supported their adjustment to life in Canada. They rebuilt their business under the name “Peace by Chocolate” and today the Hadhads have a flagship store in Halifax and they ship their confectioneries worldwide.
Or take Jim Estill, CEO of Danby Products, which produces refrigerators and other appliances. He engaged in community sponsorship with his company and made the resettlement of 89 families from Syria possible. He brings together the protection aspect of resettlement and the need for immigration in Canada from a workforce point of view, offering the refugees he sponsors work experience, language lessons and other training. Some of these newcomers have stayed to work in his company; others found work in the area or started their own business. Jim plans to sponsor 50 Afghan refugee families to Guelph.
There are many similar stories throughout Canada. The reason Canada is so progressive with respect to refugees is that we have been at it for a long time — about 40 years. Canada pioneered the concept of refugee sponsorship during the Vietnamese boat crisis of the late 1970s. Refugee sponsorship empowers individuals and communities to play the leading role in the welcome and integration of refugee newcomers in their communities. Forty years seems to have been enough time to get our Canadian model to work well enough that we now see many countries around the world copying it to varying degrees. I happen to know this first hand.
I am a partner and funder of the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI). The GRSI was launched in 2016 by founding partners the government of Canada, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Open Society Foundations, the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub and my own foundation. The GRSI has continued to grow with new partners, such as the Shapiro Foundation, and a growing number of supporters across the globe. Launched in 2016, the GRSI established lasting connections and networks and inspired countries around the world to design and start their own sponsorship programs.
Five years later, there are now 19 countries with sponsorship programs and thousands of individuals welcoming refugees as new neighbours, new colleagues, new employees and new friends.