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Volunteers sort through clothing donations for Syrian refugees who are expected to arrive in Canada within the next month, at the Middle Eastern Friendship Centre in Surrey, British Columbia November 26, 2015.

Ben Nelms/Reuters

Many settlement agencies in Ontario were overwhelmed by a unexpected surge of volunteers looking to help the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada since 2015 but were unable to tap into the additional help, a new study has found.

A report, published by the Together Project, which matches newcomers with groups of five or so volunteers, found the settlement sector was unprepared to deal with the surge of volunteer interest from Canadians. Many of the agencies did not have the experience or support to effectively mobilize the volunteer interest, the report stated.

"They didn't have the institutional structures ready to take on board a lot of new volunteers," said Craig Damian Smith, Together Project's co-founder and research director. "People we talked to in the settlement sector said their phones were ringing every day and there were hundreds of people calling and wanting to volunteer but they had difficulty integrating these volunteers. Some people referred to it as too much help."

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Although the refugee crisis existed since 2011 when the war in Syria began, many Canadians hadn't taken notice until the summer of 2015 – when images of the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on Europe's shores were widely shared. The attention towards the crisis reached its peak on Sept. 2, 2015 when the world reacted in grief to the image of Alan Kurdi – a 3-year-old Syrian toddler who drowned trying to escape the war and was found on a beach.

Mr. Smith said around 80 per cent of the dozens of volunteers questioned in the study were driven to help after seeing media coverage of the crisis in 2015 as refugees crossed Europe for refuge. The study conducted surveys and field research across the province speaking to volunteers and settlement organizations.

The three-month, qualitative study identified ways to fill the gaps in service by fostering collaboration between the settlement sector, volunteer initiatives and volunteers. One of the main findings was that independent volunteer initiatives are necessary to integrate newcomers because settlement agencies do not have the history or capacity to efficiently recruit or manage large numbers of volunteers.

The Arab Community Centre of Toronto, which normally received around 10 volunteer applications a month, started receiving up to 40 a month in 2016, when the government was trying to resettle up to 50,000 Syrian refugees.

As the agency put all their resources and effort into supporting the unprecedented amount of newcomers, Zeena Al Hamdan, a manager at the centre, said it became difficult to accommodate the number of people wanting to help because they needed to be trained, recruited and screened.

Ms. Al Hamdan said her team had to act fast and implement structural changes in order to retain the volunteer interest. The centre recruited two volunteer co-ordinators responsible for supporting and integrating those wanting to help. Ms. Al Hamdan said she feels the organization is now ready to accommodate future surges in interest.

Effectively harnessing volunteer energy is an important part of ensuring support for refugee newcomers and integration, said Mr. Smith. His initiative aims to emulate the private sponsorship model by providing government-assisted refugees with a social support network of five or more volunteers.

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John Scully, a volunteer at the Together Project, said he was driven to help because he felt he could learn from the experience and also make a difference in other people's lives. Along with six other volunteers, he was matched with a family of four Syrian refugees. The volunteers help the newcomers with everything from filling applications to helping them preper for a driver's test.

"I thought I could help out a little bit to provide an opportunity to some of the Syrian families to see a welcoming face and provide them with the chance to get support from us," Mr. Scully said. "We visit once a week, and it is always something we look forward to very much."

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