Toronto Jewish day school to sponsor refugees

Paul Penna students count the money they raised to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.
Paul Penna students count the money they raised to sponsor a Syrian refugee family

When Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School parent Angus Grant reached out to his school community to raise funds to sponsor a Syrian family of refugees, he was overwhelmed by the response.

“It became very clear, very quickly that there was this very strong desire to do something about the situation and so the response was pretty overwhelming… Within about two weeks, or less than that, we raised about $34,000,” Grant said.

He said that as an immigration refugee lawyer, he understood that the refugee crisis in the Middle East was one of “epic proportions and one that really is the biggest since the Second World War, and the responses to it were happening kind of slowly.

Practicing tikkun olam

“It was something that began percolating in my mind last year and this year, as news of the situation became more and more grave, I approached our principal, Dan Goldberg, and he was more than receptive to the idea and really saw it as fitting in with the school’s commitment to social justice, with its commitment to really putting tikkun olam into practice with the school.”

With the support of the school’s board of directors, he reached out to the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS), which had been working with other Jewish organizations on a response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Jodi Block, a community integration specialist with JIAS, said while there are a number of Jewish congregations in Toronto that have initiated the sponsorship of Syrian refugees, Paul Penna is the only Jewish day school in Toronto to do so.

Grant said the school community raised the funds, which were collected by JIAS. The agency is providing logistical support and handling the legal side of the process.

He said the amount you raise determines the size of the family you can sponsor.

“It’s based on a formula that the government puts in place and how much support the people will need to provide for their basic needs in the first year after they arrive. That’s what the money covers. For a family of four, it’s about $27,000 and change, for a family of five, it is about $29,000 and change. So our goal was to sponsor a family of five and to have money over and above that to cover some of the costs that are not covered by the process.”

Grant said that although the goal was to sponsor a family of five, JIAS identified a particular family it wanted to pair the school with. “I received an email from them saying… ‘There was a family that had been a family of five but the father and principal provider to the family had been killed in a bomb that also destroyed their house.’ They left and are in Turkey now. It’s a mother and twins who are five and an older child who is seven… That is the family that we are in the process of helping.”

Kids understand the “gravity of the situation”

He said one of the most “touching” aspects of the fundraising initiative was the fact students also took it upon themselves to get involved. “It’s an SK to Grade 6 school, so these aren’t big kids, but they really kind of absorbed the gravity of the situation, so through their student council, they did their own fundraising drive and a spare change drive, and in just over a week, they raised $1,000.”

Grant said he didn’t encounter members of the school community who opposed the initiative based on fear terrorists might come to Canada under the guise of being refugees. “Even after the whole Paris situation… I think there was a recognition that millions of regular, ordinary civilians are being displaced in the civil war and are… the much more immediate victims of terrorism.”

He said the funds have been raised and the family has been identified, but he doesn’t expect them to arrive in Toronto until spring. “The government really is doing everything they can to expedite the process. We assume once we get the paperwork in, that they will process it very quickly and then it depends on how quickly they can get exit visas from Turkey,” he said.

READ: Congregations prepare to welcome Syrian refugees

Grant said the school’s involvement provided a valuable lesson to parents and students about their role as global citizens and working to repair the world.

“Displacement, persecution, family separation – these are concepts that Jews intrinsically understand and so I think that’s also part of the reason why the response to this situation has been so forthcoming.”