In 2013, the leadership of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto surveyed the geopolitical landscape and anticipated a surge of Jewish refugees.
“It was during the time of the Ukraine crisis,” said the organization’s executive director, Janis Roth, “and there was a lot of anti-Semitism emerging in France and elsewhere in Europe. We saw that the tide was turning, and we just felt we needed to be ready.”
For JIAS, readiness meant government recognition as a refugee-sponsoring organization. Called sponsorship agreement holders – or SAHs (pronounced “saws”) – they privately support refugees who for technical reasons aren’t covered by the government-assisted program. JIAS allowed its SAH status to lapse during a recent restructuring but Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada welcomed JIAS back.
And then the Syrian refugee crisis landed. Stories and figures began to dominate Canadian news cycles, peaking with the image of a Syrian child’s body washed up on the Turkish coast. JIAS’ SAH acquired new meaning.
“Jewish community members came out in hundreds to say we want to do this work,” said Roth. “We have a group, they said, and we’re ready to go. The community just reacted so strongly and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In all, JIAS applied to sponsor 40 family units of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, covering about 140 individuals. Half of them have arrived.
JIAS generally services immigrants not refugees, and many of them Jewish, but last month it was recognized for its Syrian refugee work by Jewish humanitarian organization Ve’ahavta.
For the most part, JIAS did not choose a refugee type, but they did prioritize family reunification.
“It’s very emotional,” said Roth. “Some of them are seeing nieces and nephews for the first time, and some are seeing grandparents for the first time. There’s a family here with two young children, and they brought parents they haven’t seen in seven years. It’s pretty dramatic.”
In JIAS vernacular, the family members already living in Toronto are the “anchor family,” and they play a key role in welcoming their relatives. Sometimes, the refugees will stay with the anchor family before moving to their own apartment “because they can’t stand to be separated.”
This emphasis on reunification has led JIAS to sponsor many members of the same extended family. As a result, since one of the first families was non-Muslim Kurdish, so are their relatives. Still, they come from various backgrounds, including Yazidis from Iraq.
Thirty-two self-organized groups – called constituent groups – have provided the final piece of the welcoming party – and all the funding. The government doesn’t fund privately-sponsored refugees, and JIAS doesn’t subsidize their costs. A family of four needs about $28,000 for the first year, when the commitment to the government ends and self-support usually begins. Any additional funds raised enter a contingency fund.
Typically comprising eight to 10 members, constituent groups tap their networks for funds, but they handle the day-to-day themselves. Apartment, schools, basic necessities: all are provided by the constituent group.
“It’s huge work,” said Roth. “They’re driving these families to doctors’ appointments. It’s pretty amazing.”
The groups represent almost all sectors of the Jewish community, and all 32 are at least partly Jewish. About 15 are synagogues, including an Orthodox-Reform collaboration and a synagogue-mosque partnership. Professional groups have formed. One group even formed around a Jewish school, connecting teachers, students and parents.
JIAS co-ordinates the entire operation, beginning with pre-arrival paperwork and info sessions for constituent groups – all the while targeting Month 13 for the refugee family’s independence.
The refugees can also use JIAS’ settlement offerings, such as its English-language school. Between JIAS, the anchor family and the constituent group, they have a fighting chance, but they need time to settle.
“The culture is very different,” said Roth, “so it’s going to be a challenge to learn the language and start working. But it’s life and it’s hope, which is everything.”
Despite the passion of the constituent groups and JIAS, some sectors of the Jewish community were just as passionate in opposition. Reflecting general Canadian debate, their concerns centered on security.
“I provided information to address their concerns,” she said. “Some people at the end of the day were just against it. It wasn’t a question of wanting more information; they were just against it. I heard them out and said this decision on the part of community members is theirs alone. And every constituent group has said to us that they were very grateful that it was a Jewish organization.”
The Jewish community’s humanitarian actions could bring generations of goodwill, she said.
Anchor families send notes on Jewish holidays wishing the community well. One recently said: “We can’t believe what your community has done and how generously and how kindly. We are forever in your debt.”