It costs roughly $23,000 to support a family of five for a year in Guelph, Canada. When a local businessman made that calculation, he also made a decision: He would put up the money to help resettle 50 families of Syrian refugees.
Jim Estill, CEO of Danby, a large appliance company based in Guelph, was watching the news about Syria in the summer of 2015 when he realized that he wanted to do something.
“It was the buildup of media that I saw–that Syria was in deep trouble, and people were drowning to try to get away from the peril,” he says. “I had once heard a rabbi speak in New York who said that part of the problem with the Holocaust is that people stood by and did nothing. I did not want to be a person who stood by.”
Unlike the U.S., Canada has a private sponsorship program, originally established in 1978 to help the country accept more Vietnamese refugees. Of the nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees that Canada accepted between November 2015 and December 2016, more than 13,000 were privately sponsored.
“I believe in private sponsorship, primarily because it’s not about the money, it’s about people settling well,” says Estill. “The government can only really give money; they can’t hire friends.”
After meeting with local religious organizations and aid agencies, Estill began the painful process of choosing who could come. The number of families he decided to help went from 50 up to 58–more than 200 people–and the first refugees began to arrive in the summer of 2016.
Estill created a volunteer organization to help new arrivals with every part of their lives in Guelph, from making doctor’s appointments to how to ride the bus. “The government could issue you a bus pass, but if you don’t speak the language and you don’t know the geography, that’s daunting,” he says. “You want someone to ride the bus with you.”
Studies have shown that privately sponsored refugees are able to become self-supporting more quickly than those sponsored only by the government. (Private sponsorship has been so successful that the UN is now trying to export Canada’s model to other countries, with support from billionaire George Soros.)
“Success is families settling, working, paying taxes, speaking English, with some degree of integration,” says Estill. “And that can be done within a year, and you’re not bringing people in to be on the welfare system.”
In addition to his volunteer organization, Estill created a program in his company’s warehouse to help refugees get experience in a factory and learn English for three months after they arrive. He has helped new arrivals find jobs, and even helped one young entrepreneur buy a dollar store to start a business on his own.
Like the American company Chobani, which has drawn criticism from white nationalists for its support of refugees, Danby has also been criticized because of Estill’s philanthropy. But Estill is hoping that other business leaders are inspired to do the same thing–both because they have the financial resources and because they have the skills to do it well.
“It makes total sense for a businessperson to organize, because that’s what businesspeople do,” he says. “My organization has 800 volunteers. If you can run a business with 800 employees, you can run an 800-person volunteer organization.”
Forty-seven families have arrived so far.