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Toronto school sparks cross-country movement to sponsor refugees

Fiona, 9, and her fellow students are selling baked goods to raise funds for refugees in Toronto.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings.

As the new Liberal government works to bring in 25,000 refugees by the year's end, private sponsorship groups of all kinds have been planning and raising money for months to bring in many thousands more.

Across the country, school communities are proving to be among those well-equipped to carry out the organizational and fundraising work necessary to sponsor future Canadians.

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Parent volunteers at Dewson Street Junior Public School in Toronto last week learned that the family of Syrian refugees with which Dewson was paired had passed medical and criminal checks. That means five more Syrians have been approved for travel to Canada, but the goal of organizers at Dewson is to see many more schools put out the welcome mat.

As students went back to the school in September, a group of parents saw the coverage of refugees marching across Europe and formed a private sponsorship group.

"The process was less bureaucratic than I expected," said Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a lead organizer. She realized most schools had a network of committed people with access to a larger pool for fundraising.

"Schools are a naturally occurring community where people can come together for a project," Ms. Gallagher-Mackay said.

They started a website, Schools Welcome Refugees, to coach parents and staff elsewhere, and issued the 1,000 School Challenge to see how many of Canada's other 15,500 schools would get on board.

Calgary parent Marg Seeger heard about Dewson's effort on the radio and talked to the principal and parent council at Sunalta School. A survey they sent home to gauge interest came back 96 per cent in favour of sponsoring a refugee family (with a 50-per-cent return rate).

"Kids see people in need and they want to help," Ms. Seeger said. Her son's Grade 5 class made a project of putting together a budget for things such as groceries and rent for the prospective arrivals. She said it is teaching them everything from global issues to household management. "As a parent, I want my children to be aware of what's going on in the world," she said.

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Parent involvement is all laid out on a spreadsheet. It includes things like furniture donations, dental care and translation help.

"We have more volunteers than we have tasks right now," Ms. Seeger said.

At an assembly last month at Dewson in Toronto, Ms. Gallagher-Mackay told students that in 15 days, their school had raised $35,000. The money came mainly through pledges from families.

Sitting cross-legged on the gymnasium floor, fourth-grader Gabriela Urbaez-Quintana put up her hand to relate that her grandparents had fled dictator Augusto Pinochet's Chile in the 1970s. "My grandparents had a hard time, but I'm happy that they are here now. I feel really good that we are raising money for another family that needs it," she explained afterward.

Ms. Gallagher-Mackay said 51 schools across the country are in touch with Dewson and either undertaking or considering a sponsorship, with no way to know how many schools are doing it on their own. She said word-of-mouth creates a ripple effect. "Every school in our neighbourhood is doing it."

Ellen Woolaver is part of the secretariat for the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association. For seven years, she has been helping grassroots groups pair with refugee sponsorship administrators. She said there has been a recent blossoming of interest among groups of all kinds, including workplaces and book clubs.

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"Schools are very appropriate for sponsorships," Ms. Woolaver said, pointing out that they already have in-house organizations such as parent councils and social justice clubs full of capable and motivated people.

In Calgary, Ms. Seeger said no sponsorship effort is under way at the high school of her eldest child, underscoring an observation from Ms. Gallagher-Mackay: that the parent communities of elementary schools seem to be far more involved. Few secondary schools have joined the 1,000 School Challenge.

Ava Islam of Guelph, Ont., who is in Grade 9, took a proposal to her school's social justice committee, but money was an issue. The federal government estimates the initial cost of sponsoring a family of four at $27,000. People for Education's 2015 annual report on Ontario's public schools shows that the median amount of fundraising in GTA elementary schools is $8,000 a year.

A teacher told Ava the school had never come close to raising the necessary amount of money. The school would hold a bake sale and a pledge-based run-a-thon to benefit Doctors Without Borders instead. "We have 1,500 students in the school. Even if we had to join with other schools we could have raised enough," Ava said.

Sunalta in Calgary will start its fundraising this week. Ms. Seeger knows it will be daunting to ask for $30,000 beyond the normal load in an environment where pledge sheets and requests for donations come home with students regularly. Still, Ms. Seeger thinks the money will be gathered by the end of the month. "People know that these people are just like you and me, that they are in this situation because of an accident of birth," she said.

Instead of the typical rising thermometer graphic to show fundraising progress, Ms. Seeger plans to display footprints on a hallway wall. Each new step will mean they are getting closer to their goal, and that the footprints of a few more refugees might be closer to reaching Canada.

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