This article appeared in the Toronto Star and was published on September 3, 2015

The image: a chubby three-year-old dressed in a bright red t-shirt, dark blue shorts and shoes. Lying face down in sand. Not sleeping but drowned. The picture of little Alan Kurdi’s body is now seared in our brains. Adding to our horror is shame. The details are not confirmed, but it has been reported that the young child and his family were hoping to come to Canada.

Alan Kurdi is only one of four million Syrian refugees and at least seven million internally displaced refugees who have fled violence seeking safe haven. Governments around the world must do more and Canada must reclaim its traditional place as a world leader in humanitarian action and peacebuilding. But, we as individuals cannot hide behind the pretence of powerlessness. We can make a difference. Tears are not enough.

More than 35 years ago, I was part of Operation Lifeline, which was formed to help resettle Indochinese refugees, often referred to as “the boat people.” In a matter of months, private sponsorship groups, working with community organizations helped resettle more than 60,000 refugees. The overwhelming response and efforts of ordinary people across the country who stepped up to privately sponsor families forced the government to increase its quota from the original target of 4,000.

Although I was in university at the time, the crisis touched me deeply. My own father, a Holocaust survivor, lost most of his family but had been hidden during the war and found refuge at the age of 11 in England. His experience added to my deep sense of obligation to “pay it forward” and my sense of urgency. Because as we know, delay means more deaths. In 1980, my private sponsorship group welcomed a Vietnamese family to Canada. We helped them find a place to live, find jobs, enroll in English lessons, and get health care. And while it was challenging, the rewards were spectacular. Their children and their extended family’s children have been very successful. And like many other Canadians, they are stepping up to also “pay it forward”.

Canada has pledged to resettle 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2017, yet just over 1,000 have been welcomed. But other countries are putting us to shame. We have, as private citizens an opportunity to show that to Canada, a country of immigrants, they are welcome. It’s not just a humanitarian and human rights obligation. It is also key to our economic growth because immigrants broadly and refugees in particular, bring much more than they take. In fact, research shows that in spite of negative stereotypes and discrimination, refugees are more successful than many other immigrants – by definition they are survivors prepared to work hard and take risks in order to make a better life for their families.

What can individuals do? We can step up and help privately sponsor a Syrian family. We can donate time or money or accommodation and help us welcome more refugees to Canada. Lifeline Syria has committed to promoting private sponsorship of 1,000 Syrian refugees in Toronto over the next two years. And in one month, the Ryerson community stepped up to sponsor 11 Syrian families or 44 refugees with more than 200 volunteers. But we can of course do more. Sponsorship groups have to commit to supporting the family for a year, finding them employment and housing and meeting their basic living needs – the average cost is about $27,000 per family. But many become self-supporting quickly. And we can let our politicians of all stripes know how important this is to us personally. Our mayor, John Tory, has already called on other communities to follow the lead of Lifeline Syria and faith groups – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and others – have, as always, taken a leadership role.

As we did during Operation Lifeline, we are already seeing resistance from people who are misinformed, or have other priorities or do not understand the contributions of immigrants to Canada. In 1980, there was fear of communism (or in some cases people fleeing communism) and racism reared its ugly head time and time again. Today, we face resistance, indifference and Islamophobia, but most Canadians know better. The photograph of little Alan Kurdi’s body cannot but touch anyone who sees it with sadness, and horror, and shame. Let it also remind us of the terrible costs of bureaucracy, of dithering and of delay. And let it be a tragic call to action on behalf of all the children and their families that deserve better. We can all do more. We must all do more. We have done it before. Let’s do it again.

Wendy Cukier is director of Ryerson’s Diversity Institute, vice president of research and innovation at the university and a founding member of Operation Lifeline Syria. She is one of the 11 team leaders each sponsoring a Syrian refugee family.

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