New horizons

Canadian businessman Jim Estill put up $1.5m to bankroll an Ontario town’s resettlement of 58 Syrian refugee families. Now, he hopes to galvanise others around the world to do the same.

A one-hour meeting was all it took for Jim Estill to get a plan to bring 50 Syrian refugee families to Canada off the ground, and into play. The CEO of multimillion-dollar home appliance firm Danby rounded up aid and religious organisations in his home city of Guelph, zipped through a brief PowerPoint presentation, and asked them to join the cause.

“And they said they would,” he says easily, “so that was that.”

Estill is a doer. A serial entrepreneur, he has built companies and a career on the maxim that even indecision is a decision and that – when in doubt – you should do the right thing. In the summer of 2015, as the count of Syrians fleeing their country reached 4 million and the toll of those dying at Europe’s shores rose, Estill felt the need to act.

Over the next few days he appraised local rents, calculated a food budget, and checked his sums against the government’s welfare rates. Based on his estimates, he worked out that it would cost him C$30,000 (about $23,000) a year to fund a family of five in Guelph, a small city about 93km outside Toronto.

By putting up a budget of $1.5m, he could afford to support about 50 Syrian families for a year under Canada’s private sponsorship programme.

That was the plan he pitched to the Muslim Society of Guelph, the Salvation Army, and a clutch of local churches and synagogues, to ask for their help in fostering a citywide volunteer network to help settle the families into new lives.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Estill says today. “As an entrepreneur, I always say ‘I do something’ – it’s not in my DNA to look the other way. Bringing in 250 people seemed proportional in a city of 130,000, and I thought that if every Canadian citizen did their part, we’d be able to empty the lake with a bunch of thimbles.”

Much of the world has reacted to the global refugee crisis with a mix of hesitancy and hostility. In Canada, citizens have rallied to welcome them. Private sponsorship began in the country in 1978, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and allows private citizens to bring in and settle refugees as long as they commit to shouldering their expenses for the first year.

More than 250,000 refugees have come to Canada so far under the scheme, including thousands of Syrians since the outbreak of war in 2011. As a child, Estill’s own family billeted two young men who had fled Uganda, though he mainly recalls annoyance at being moved out of his bedroom to accommodate them. “I was eight,” he laughs. “But they became fast friends.”

Estill’s scheme was ambitious. Though staffed by volunteers – and buoyed by donations - it would run like a business: a full-scale operation offering refugees everything from English-language classes, to furniture, housing, and job training.

Each family would be matched with Arabic and English-speaking mentors, to aid in tasks ranging from finding a doctor, to setting up a bank account and  grocery shopping.  For the first month to six weeks, newcomers would be billeted with a host family.

The scheme’s success would be decided by a clear outcome, Estill decided: 50 families who work, pay taxes, buy groceries, speak English and have a degree of integration. “The aim has to be independence,” he says. “Success is not 50 families on welfare. It’s not people who are ghettoised. You don’t help anyone by just writing cheques.”

Getting the city on board proved easy. Within weeks “we had people coming out of the woodwork,” says Estill, as more than 800 volunteers scrambled to join the cause. They were spun off into teams – healthcare, finance, education, jobs, transportation, mentorship – each led by a director, and charged with helping newcomers navigate one aspect of their new lives.

In town, a large, rented warehouse strained at the seams with donations of furniture, kitchen appliances, bedding, dishes and clothes.

“I tell my friends, if you can run a business with 800 employees, you can run an organisation with 800 volunteers,” Estill says briskly. “This was no different. It’s just organising and executing on a bigger scale.”

Harder was choosing who would come. In November 2015, a story about Estill’s plan appeared in a local paper. Within days, it had been translated into Arabic and shared across the Middle East, lighting up news feeds from Beirut to Cairo.

At first, Estill received just a trickle of messages from refugees pleading for his help. But as the weeks passed, the emails stretched into the thousands, as families in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and even Syria begged to come to Canada. Estill read them all.

“It’s terrible, because you are playing with their lives,”  he says quietly. “How do you choose who to help, when you can’t help them all?”

Estill favoured those he thought were most likely to integrate in Canada: families with someone able earn a living, and those with relatives already in the area. Gradually, painstakingly, 58 families were selected, or about 220 people. The first reached Canada in January 2016, after a series of bureaucratic bottlenecks delayed their arrival and left pre-rented housing standing empty. The final families arrived in April of this year.

“It’s been incredible, how people have given their time, their money, their skills to help them settle in,” says Sara Sayyed who, along with her husband, Muhammed, of the Muslim Society of Guelph, helps oversee the volunteer network and the families’ resettlement.

The challenges, when they came, were not of the large-scale variety Sara had braced for. Instead, it was smaller tensions over the presence of pets in billet houses – something at odds with Syrian culture – or patting down a host family, ruffled by their guests’ failure to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

“We had to explain they had almost no English, and were struggling to communicate at all, so it wasn't a matter of being impolite,” Sara says. “I’d expected big, logistical problems – but it was the little cultural nuances.”

Estill encouraged refugees with little English to watch television and gain exposure to the language. During a home visit, he was surprised to find one family closely following a French-language show.

“They just assumed,” he grins, “that if it was on TV it had to be English. I suppose it would be like asking me to distinguish between Chinese and Korean.”

As the families settled in, Estill found many struggled to break into the job market because they lacked the necessary experience and English skills. Some were almost illiterate in Arabic, which made learning a new language a titanic task.

His response was to establish the ‘Ease into Canada’ programme at Danby, which offers the refugees three months of work experience to help them find their feet, along with interview coaching, résumé writing, and daily in-house English classes. “We do 40 minutes a day of English, we have a lunch buddy scheme, we have an English word of the day – we introduce it in Arabic, then English – and we do our best to help them get used to the Canadian way of doing things,” says Estill.

His employees have risen to the challenge. “If you want to inspire your company, do a project like this,” he confides. “People are inspired by purpose. I’d love to say selling another 1,000 bar fridges is purpose enough, but it seems this has the edge.”

The scheme is open to all Syrians – not just those who are supported by Estill – and some have relocated across Canada to enroll in it. When the 90 days are up, Estill reaches into his rolodex and does his best to land them all jobs.

“If we have work, we’ll keep them on. If not, I’ll try and transition them to my friends,” Estill explains. “I call around local employers and say, ‘give the guy a chance. He’s hardworking: you’ll be thrilled with him.’”

He has placed around 100 refugees in jobs so far, helped by his business network and Guelph’s largely blue-collar economy, where factory work is plentiful. It isn’t glamorous – and it can come as a shock to some highly educated Syrians, used to a professional role – but the goal is employment, however it comes. “It’s a way to support your family while you train to do something else,” Estill drills them.

It’s also been a way to head off any slow-burning tensions with local residents. “The community isn’t looking at these people and saying, ‘they’re living off my tax dollars,’” explains Estill. “They have jobs and are paying tax. I think of it in terms of helping people get on their feet – you want to teach people to fish.”

“I don’t know what would have happened to us without this opportunity. We had no hope and no future.”

Firas, geologist and refugee.

Firas, 39, arrived in Guelph in December with his wife and six-year-old daughter. A qualified geologist, he’d lived in Damascus until war broke out in 2011 before leaving to take up a role with an oil company in Iraq. His parents later fled to Saudi Arabia to live with two of his brothers, leaving him with no family in Syria. Firas, his wife and daughter stayed in Iraq until 2015, when rising unrest and falling oil prices saw his employer shutter its operations.

The family took a bus across the border to Turkey where, after seven months of searching, Firas found temporary work as a translator. He eventually secured a job with a global NGO, acting as an interpreter for fellow Syrian refugees, but – following Turkey’s attempted military coup and a spate of terror attacks – says the family “never felt safe” in the country.

In early 2016, Firas heard about Estill through a friend, who had already been accepted into the programme. He filled out the applications, and then endured almost a year’s wait to hear that his family had been successful. “I was shocked, but so happy,” he says. “I don’t know what would have happened to us without this opportunity. We had no hope and no future.”

Today Firas works as a supervisor in Danby. He is studying, rents a home with his wife and no longer needs the $1,900 monthly allowance given through the sponsorship programme. Enrolling his daughter in kindergarten was “the greatest pleasure I’ve had in Canada,” he says.

Firas’ deep gratitude to the people who have helped settle his family into their new life is clear. “I once asked a volunteer if he was paid for helping me,” he remembers. “He said no: that he wasn’t able to stop the war in my country, but he was happy to do his bit and help a refugee from Syria.”

Estill is looking to the future. He hopes to bring at least another 50 families to Canada, and is lobbying to lift government caps on immigration. He also wants to motivate other wealthy businesspeople to put their money in motion, and find homes and jobs for refugees. The refugee response needs this new blood, he says.

“Entrepreneurs know how to scale, and they’re connected. We need good people to stand up.”

He remains baffled by the attention he’s received for his efforts. At best, his many previous gifts to charity earned him a plaque on a wall, but never global headlines.

“I’m blown away by this,” he admits. “I really don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just – you know: do the right thing. I didn’t want to look back and know I stood by and did nothing.”

The payback he receives is from the families, becoming enmeshed in Canadian life. Of those who have lived in Guelph for more than four months, 80 per cent are now working and paying their way. For Estill and his wife, weekends and evenings now consist of visiting the homes of newcomers and seeing their progress.

“I drink more tea than I’ve ever drunk in my life,” he laughs, “but these families are friends. I see their children doing well; it’s extremely heartwarming.” – PA