Appliance firm CEO Jim Estill is behind an ambitious scheme to resettle 58 families in Guelph, Ontario, and galvanised hundreds of residents to help
On a recent snowy Saturday, Jim Estill went knocking on his neighbours’ doors, offering to shovel snow from walkways and driveways for cash.
Behind him stood a handful of Syrian refugees, newly arrived to the Canadian city of Guelph, in south-western Ontario. Estill, the CEO of multimillion-dollar appliance company Danby, was acting as the group’s salesman, and helped the refugees land 50 snow-clearing jobs.
It was a glimpse into the deep relationship that has been forged since the mild-mannered executive decided just over a year ago to spend C$1.5m (£904,000) to bring 200 Syrian refugees to Canada.
In the summer of 2015, moved by the headlines emerging from what he called one of the “the greatest humanitarian crises of our lifetime”, Estill began working out how many families he could help under Canada’s private sponsorship programme, which was launched 35 years ago after the Vietnam war and has brought more than 275,000 refugees to Canada. It allows private citizens to welcome and settle refugees as long as they commit to covering the expenses for the first year or so and helping the newcomers ease into their new lives.
The 59-year-old estimated that it would cost C$30,000 to support a family of five in Guelph, a small city some 60 miles (96km) west of Toronto, and that he could support about 50 families.
“I didn’t think that was a big deal,” Estill said in an interview with the Guardian. “Guelph is 120,000 in population, and 50 families is maybe 250 or 300 people. That’s a blip, that’s nothing.”
He called a meeting with several of the city’s religious and aid organisations in September, all of whom signed up to his ambitious plan.
That was the easy bit. What followed, Estill said, was the worst part: how to choose who would come to Canada, amid the millions who have been displaced. “Basically you’re playing God,” he said. “You’re choosing who lives and who dies and who comes and who doesn’t.”
Estill decided that his scheme’s success could be measured by refugees eventually working, paying taxes and having some degree of integration into Canadian society. With that goal in mind, he favoured those who had relatives in the area, as well as families. “The part that was bad is that we wouldn’t take a single mother with eight kids, because we thought, ‘Your life is not going to be that good and how are you going to settle successfully?’ So that’s the way we chose,” he said. “It’s terrible, but what can you do?”
He selected 58 families, but wants to continue to bring in refugees in waves of 50 families at a time, ensuring each wave is settled before launching into the paperwork to bring in the next group.
So far 47 families have arrived in Guelph, with another 11 expected in the coming months. Helping the newcomers – who will eventually number about 225 in total – adjust to their new lives has become a city-wide effort, with more than 800 residents volunteering to help navigate challenges that range from finding rental housing in a city where the vacancy rate hovers around 0.6%, to introducing the newcomers to the frigid, snowy Canadian winters.
The result is a full-scale operation – staffed by volunteers and bolstered by a deluge of donations – that offers the refugees everything from job training to English-language classes. Each family is paired with Arabic- and English-speaking mentors, who aid them in tasks that range from riding the city bus to setting up a bank account.
“It’s been quite amazing,” said Sara Sayyed, who along with her husband, Muhammed Sayyed, of the Muslim Society of Guelph, have helped Estill oversee the settlement of the families. “Everybody has gotten involved, from the municipal government to all the different organisations that are out there. We’ve got people from all walks of life, volunteering everything from their time to their services to donating things.”
Estill, however, has been the backbone of the effort. He and his wife have billeted a steady stream of newly arrived families in their home, and he often spends evenings visiting the homes of newcomers. New rental housing has been financed and an office building converted into residences as he works to increase the city’s supply of rental homes. At Danby, he established a programme that offers the refugees three months of work experience to get them on their feet, allowing them a flexible schedule to accommodate job interviews and the twice-weekly in-house English-language classes.
In one downtown shopping centre, renovations are under way for a two-storey establishment that will host a dollar store, backed by Estill and run by a 31-year-old former car salesman from Damascus.
“I still don’t believe it,” said the refugee, who asked to be identified as Youssef in order to protect his family in Syria. After he expressed an interest in running the store, Estill opened a line of credit for him and told him he could own the small business. “He brought me here to this country and he didn’t just stop there.”
Youssef fled Syria when the war began, ending up in Cairo. He had been trying to work up the courage to smuggle himself into Europe, but fear always held him back. After hearing about Estill’s project from a cousin in Canada, he filled out the applications, knowing it was a longshot but wondering whether Canada might hold the destiny that he had failed to reach in Europe.
He was shocked to find out he had been chosen. “I immediately Googled his name. I mean, who is this person who is going to pay $1.5m to sponsor strangers that he has never met?”
When he arrived in Canada in July, he made a point of seeking out Estill. “I thanked him for his generosity – I told him that no one has been as generous to me as Jim Estill, besides my parents.”
Deep gratitude colours Youssef’s description of Estill. “He drives a small car, he is extremely humble,” said Youssef, pointing to Estill’s Toyota Prius. With a laugh he added, “If I were a millionaire like Jim, I would never, ever drive his car. All of this money he has, he only cares about humanitarian efforts.”
For Estill, the payback on his investment has been in watching the families settle into life in Canada. “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing that,” he said. More than half of the families who have arrived so far have found jobs and are paying their own rent, taking delight in purchases such as their first television.
He is quick to brush aside any praise for what he has done. “I still don’t see what the big deal is. And I’m surprised more people don’t step up and do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to grow old and say I stood by and did nothing. So I decided to do my small part.”
Source : https://www.theguardian.com