Christmas Eve was anything but traditional for two of UTM’s philosophy professors. Amidst their late afternoon run to No Frills—adding to the stock of lentils, rice, and other dry goods placed in the new apartment—Dr. Jennifer Nagel and Dr. Sergio Tenenbaum found themselves nervous but excited. In less than 48 hours, they would be at Pearson International, waiting to welcome a refugee family.

A group of 15 friends and family, dubbed Room for More, had been formed through the professors’ efforts to privately sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

The group welcomed six refugees, a mother and five children, with five of them arriving on December 26. After an extended layover in Jordan, the 21-year-old son arrived on December 30. The family, who are now permanent Canadian residents, are set to begin a new chapter of their lives.

Launched in 1979, the Canadian Private Sponsorship Program has brought over 225,000 refugees to Canada over the years. The private sponsorship process involves the submission of an application for a refugee profile to the federal government addressed to the Winnipeg Central Processing Office, followed by raising funds and developing a settlement plan. The experience, however, has proved to be much larger for the group than the logistics would indicate.

“Undertaking a sponsorship is something that has enriched my life much more than I would have expected,” says Nagel, describing how the experience has been for her and her family. “I have a pretty tame life—two kids, a husband, and a Honda Civic—and suddenly I’m spending time with people who have escaped a war zone and meeting people whose immediate family members have been killed by ISIS or by the Syrian Armed Forces […] Weirdly, what I’m doing with them is stuff like waiting in the apartment for the guy from Teksavvy to come install the Internet.”

The Handbook for Sponsoring Groups, published by the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program in Scarborough, emphasizes culture shock being a significant component for adjustment for both parties. Nagel explains how cultural adjustment, while being unsettling, can be an incredible learning experience, commenting, “You’d think those three-hour delivery windows would be really hard to wait through when you don’t share a language with your hosts, but they aren’t.

“When the Internet was finally up, I felt really bad for the 21-year-old, who was desperately trying to log into his Facebook account, which was giving him the whole secondary verification thing, probably freaked out by the fact that he’s logging in from another continent,” she says. While Facebook was sending a text message with an access code, the cell phone was presumably dead somewhere in the Middle East. “There he was, with an awesome status update ready to go, and he couldn’t log in.”

Moments like these make Nagel feel culturally close to her “new family”, as does watching SpongeBob SquarePants with them in Arabic—the voices, she says, are pretty much the same.

Room for More donations included furniture, clothing, and household equipment.
Room for More donations included furniture, clothing, and household equipment.

However, there are some very significant differences, such as the language barrier. “I only have a few words of the language, and I have very little time to work on it right now, with work and family responsibilities,” she says.

Room for More had put out a call for volunteer translators, which was taken up not only across the UTM campus by organizations such as the MSA, but also across Toronto. The Room for More group currently has 47 volunteer translators, primarily including people who live near the refugee family in Toronto. With most UTM students living near Brampton or Mississauga, the group has not used a UTM student translator yet. Nagel adds, “The family has only been here two weeks. Meanwhile, it’s just good knowing we have a long list of people willing to help if we need them, even if just over the phone.”

RSTP requires that private sponsorship projects proceed either as a group of five, or in partnership with a sponsorship agreement holder. Room for More opted for the SAH route, choosing Humanity First, an almost exclusively volunteer-run charity in Vaughan.

“We didn’t push very hard, [yet] we had people coming at us with all kinds of furniture, clothing, and household equipment,” says Nagel.

She recalls a woman donating her family’s beautiful Passover dishes, explaining that they only get used once a year. Room for More also received a significant donation from the staff at the UTM Advancement Office as a part of their annual holiday-season giving tradition. Additionally, when one of the Room for More group members took the family to a local mosque last Friday for prayer services, the imam (leader of the congregation) gave them a special welcome and a box of chocolates, and asked them to let him know if the congregation could help in any way.

Even with overwhelming donations and help available, Nagel does highlight how various things will get hard once the honeymoon of arrival is over. “It will be hard for our new family to learn the language, hard for them to do well in school at first, hard for them to get jobs, hard to learn a whole new system, hard even to deal with the weather,” she says.

However, she remains optimistic for this family. “The youngest kid got up at 6:30 a.m. for the first day of school because he was so excited. This might just be the kind of kid who will make it to his 9 a.m. classes on time in university, I can hope,” she says.

Owing to her interaction with newcomer students from a broad array of cultures at UTM, Nagel reaffirms how kids coming to Canada, even in their late teens, can make extremely rapid academic progress and thrive here.

Room for More is now faced with the challenge of using these resources to support more refugee families, starting with more paperwork. “Filling out sponsorship paperwork feels like the worst high school class you ever took—it’s very boring, and there is a terrible penalty if you make even one mistake spelling a name or writing in a date of birth.”

Nagel mentions how a single mistake could result in the application being sent back, with months of delay for the refugee on the other side. She remains motivated, however, by saying, “Whatever headaches we have with that are nothing compared to what the people on the other side are experiencing.”

While Nagel remains hopeful that the overall reception of the Syrian refugees in Canada continues to be positive, she understands how this will be a struggle. “Look at the comments section under any CBC website article on the refugees and there is a massive sewer of hatred there, bad even by the general standards of Internet comments sections, which is saying something,” she says.

Nagel envisions these difficulties smoothing out over time with better organization, and she also hopes that “the deeper problems with hate (here in Canada, over in the Middle East, and elsewhere) can get solved by this new generation of internationally-minded people—a generation formed with the help of movements like the influx of refugees here”.