This article appeared in the Toronto Sun and was published on August 25, 2016

As a fresh-faced Ryerson University graduate student, Wendy Cukier embraced the opportunity to take part in Operation Lifeline, an initiative that helped privately sponsor and settle 60,000 Indochinese refugees in 1979-80.

Today, Cukier is a Ryerson professor and used that experience to found and serve as executive lead of the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge. The initiative led to a collaboration with the University of Toronto, York University and OCAD University, and has brought 23 Syrian refugee families to Canada to date.

Within just a couple of months of the challenge’s July 2015 launch, organizers more than doubled their goal and formed 25 teams to sponsor 100 refugees. As other Toronto universities joined forces, organizers quickly tripled their goal to form 75 teams to sponsor 300 refugees.

The challenge now has 102 teams and has raised enough funds to sponsor 146 families consisting of more than 500 people. “Sponsors and volunteers have described the experience as life changing,” Cukier says. “Our students are gaining unparalleled experiential learning and applied research opportunities.”


Along the way, a new model of social innovation in which post-secondary institutions partner with the government, private sector, community organizations and citizens to leverage the talent of students has taken shape.

“I believe post-secondary institutions increasingly are demonstrating that they have a really important role to play in driving not just economic growth but addressing complex social issues. I’m really excited about this as a model we might be able to scale or use in other contexts,” Cukier says, pointing to the fires in Fort McMurray as an example.


Students are “brilliant and creative” and “thrive” when given a framework of what needs to be done. “They want space to figure out what they think they can do and want to do. You provide some guidance, leadership and suggestions but one of the keys to tapping into young people’s energy and ideas is to create that space.”

Ryerson students help prepare for a refugee family’s arrival and assist them in adjusting to life in Canada — from searching for appropriate housing and meeting them at the airport to helping the family enrol in school and apply for government services and providing orientation to transit, banking and employment.


Because of that assistance, the challenge attracted people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered sponsoring a refugee family. “It removed a lot of the barriers for people getting involved,” says Cukier. She remains friends with the family she sponsored many years ago and is optimistic Syrian refugees will be successful here.

“From my research we know that as challenging as it is for refugees to come to Canada, we have one of the highest levels of social mobility in the world. That means your parents’ education and income level is not a predicator of your education or income level. It’s true that many immigrants and refugees and have to accept survival jobs … but their kids do as well or better as the kids of people born in Canada.”

Helping hands

The following are examples of how post-secondary institutions have lent helping hands to Syrian refugees:

Through a faculty of law refugee sponsorship support program at the University of Ottawa, lawyers give free advice to Canadians seeking help with the legal and procedural challenges involved in sponsoring refugees.
Students at North Bay’s Nipissing University took part in the national 25,000 Tuques Project aimed at welcoming each of the 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in a truly Canadian way: by giving them a handmade tuque.
— Source: Council of Ontario Universities
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