Toronto , Canada

Learning By Doing

Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge

April 13, 2016

A university led refugee sponsorship program creates experiential learning opportunities for students, volunteers and new institutional partnerships across the city.

Lifeline-Syria-Photo-by-Mustafa-Öztürk-f4By June 2015, the number of persons who had been forced from their homes as a result of the Syrian war was staggering. Government responses around the globe were falling far short of what was needed in what the United Nations has called the greatest refugee crisis of our time.

Canadians were calling for a greater response to the crisis and looking for opportunities to make an impact directly.

Enter private refugee sponsorship, a policy mechanism unique to Canada that allows everyday Canadians to roll up their sleeves and take a direct role in refugee resettlement. Pre-screened and approved private citizens volunteer to take on all financial and settlement-based responsibilities for a newcomer refugee family’s first year in Canada. The private sponsorship model was developed in the 1970s in response to the Indochinese refugee crisis, when more than 60,000 persons fleeing conflict forged relationships with the Canadians who stepped up to help them navigate their new communities.

In 2015, an organization called Lifeline Syria was established to champion private sponsorship to a new generation of Canadians in Toronto who wanted to take action on the Syrian crisis. Several leaders from Ryerson University, a publicly-funded Toronto university specializing in social innovation were on Lifeline Syria’s founding board of directors. Ryerson leaders saw that Canada’s private sponsorship model could be improved by harnessing the power and creativity of Toronto’s most dedicated changemakers: students. Ryerson leaders knew that campus consciousness of the Syrian humanitarian crisis had reached a tipping point, and students were searching for meaningful opportunities to channel their energy and make a real impact using their passions, not their wallets.

Organizers were careful to give student volunteers a major role in shaping the vision for the project. For Samantha Jackson, Ryerson graduate and volunteer coordinator, the project offered a unique opening for those who want to do something about the Syrian crisis: “This platform cuts through the noise and lets students turn their outrage into action.”

 The student-driven solution

Radwan Al-Nachawati, 22, jumped at the chance to be a part of Ryerson’s Lifeline Syria Challenge (Ryersonian Staff)

Radwan Al-Nachawati, 22, jumped at the chance to be a part of Ryerson’s Lifeline Syria Challenge (Ryersonian Staff)

The Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge (RULSC) was launched in July 2015 with the goal of helping students become driving forces in private refugee resettlement. The RULSC was Canada’s first ever university-led sponsorship organization, and had to work quickly to build an infrastructure that incorporates the needs of students, private sponsors, and newcomer Syrian refugees within the existing private sponsorship framework.

The idea was this: draw on students’ expertise, skills, and energy to create a team-based refugee sponsorship model that could scale to other universities and institutions across Canada. Ryerson alumni and community members joined to make teams of 5 or more persons who would collectively undertake the established financial and settlement-based responsibilities of private refugee sponsorship. Students would support sponsor teams and newcomer families without taking on formal sponsorship liability.

Students’ response was remarkable – in the midst of summer break, more than 100 students joined in two weeks. Radwan Al-Nachawati, marketing student and president of the Muslim Students’ Association, said he jumped at the chance to be a part of the Ryerson Lifeline Syria Challenge: “Living in Canada, we are blessed with opportunity, and with opportunity comes responsibility. It is our duty to give back.”

Student volunteers are split into five groups: finance, health and wellness, translation interpretation, political engagement and a general focus on introducing refugees to Toronto. Students were quickly divided into direct and indirect volunteers. Direct volunteers were paired with sponsor teams to help prepare for the team’s sponsored family’s arrival. Once the family arrived, student team members act as key social supports, friends, and tour guides to the family’s new home.

Indirect volunteers created committees reflecting their area of study, and focused their energy on generating resources for sponsor teams in preparation for the newcomers’ arrival. For example, nursing students on the Health & Wellness committee researched how newcomers could get a health card; political studies students on the Active Citizenship committee created ‘Canada 101’ seminars for all ages for topics ranging from Canada’s electoral system to the citizenship application process. Arabic-speaking students translate materials and interpret for newcomers (“how to get a bank account”), and all committees updated a Settlement Handbook for Sponsors to study pre-newcomers’ arrival.

From One to Many

“When we started, we really didn’t anticipate the tremendous outpouring of support in the Ryerson community and then the extended university communities,” says  Wendy Cukier, executive lead of Ryerson’s Lifeline Syria Challenge and the vice-president research and innovation at Ryerson. “Students are our secret weapon because they have been the bedrock of the support, and being able to offer translation support, support in finding jobs, accommodation and so on has really led many people to want to work with us at Ryerson and the other universities.”

By leveraging students’ skills, drive, and fresh perspective on what it means to make Toronto a welcoming community, the success of RULSC led to its growth across three additional Toronto university campuses: the University of Toronto, York University, and OCADU.

Each campus brings with it a unique institutional identity that contributes to the pan-university Challenge’s ongoing success. While metrics on Syrian family arrivals and student engagement are telling, the true impact of the RULSC will be seen in the years to come, when this generation of students can continue the incredible inertia around private sponsorship in Canada to help additional populations in times of need.

“At some point, we have to figure out when we declare victory,” said Cukier. “We need to decide when we’ve done enough and that’s really a discussion of the four universities and also a matter of resources.”

Until then, RULSC volunteers and staff continue to work in small and large ways to make Toronto a city where refugees are welcome today –and tomorrow. And leaders like Wendy Cukier are on the road sharing the success of Lifeline Syria and selling the merits of Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program to other jurisdictions:

“Lifeline Syria extends the promise of safety to refugees through private sponsorship. By connecting refugees to private sponsor groups, it enables everyday Canadians to provide support to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in a tangible and meaningful way. Like other innovations in the sharing economy, it addresses emergent needs, bringing together people with money, skills, time, or other resources. The United States has the capability and resources to go far beyond our effort.”  – Wendy Cukier speaking at the Niskanen Center, Washington, April, 2016


OCAD University, University of Toronto and York University have joined Ryerson University to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, mobilizing communities to bring and resettle Syrian refugees throughout Canada. Initially established with a goal of sponsoring 10 families, or 40 newcomers, the wider-university RULSC upped its commitment to 75 Syrian refugee families or 300 people. On the student volunteers and community engagement side of the equation, RULSC easily met its goal to bring together 75 teams to sponsor 75 families.

Samantha Jackson and RULSC wedding party

Samantha Jackson and RULSC wedding party

The first Syrian family arrived in October. As of April 2016, Toronto’s network of universities has raised more than $4 million, formed 93 teams, and helped 15 Syrian families, and over 95 newcomers settle in Canada. RULSC has attracted a network of more than 1,000 volunteers including students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members. A full range of students, faculty, staff and alumni have taken up the challenge, tapping community resources, experiences and skills in thoughtful and surprising ways: for example, over 200 self-identified Arabic speakers are receiving training as interpreters while payroll deduction programs make giving at work as seamless as your morning coffee.

RULSC is providing unparalleled experiential learning at all four universities. For student volunteers like Al-Nachawati, 22, it’s a good fit: “University is not only about academic and professional growth, but also about developing a sense of empathy and making a difference in the lives of others.”

But Samantha Jackson and Farzin Yousefian take the cake – they cancelled their wedding ceremony and got married at City Hall. Rather than a reception, they hosted a fundraiser where friends and family could help them celebrate by donating to the Ryerson Lifeline Syria Challenge.


Making it Work for You:

  • Say yes when you could say no: Promote an organizational bias towards action and intelligent risk taking.
  • Build on existing good ideas: We tapped into Ryerson’s rich ecosystem of student-run organizations to see what on-campus initiatives could be adapted to meet the needs of the RULSC - for example, student group Enactus created a Canadian financial literacy course for the program’s Syrian arrivals.
  • Timing is not of the essence, it is everything: Being able to capture the momentum that built around the Syrian crisis following the publication of Aylan Kurdi’s photo was critical.
  • Leverage technology: Our online infrastructure was critical to capturing public support.
  • Learn from successes and failures: Iterate. Pivot. Make it up as you go along.
  • Collaborate to innovate: To go fast, go alone. To go far, build a team (but, a fast team).
  • Reflect: Assess and evaluate processes.

For this Good Idea contact:

Tamara Sabarini, Ryerson University
Ryerson Lifeline Syria Challenge
Toronto, ON, Canada,
M5B 2K3

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