Following the 2015 Federal Election, Canadians united around a commitment to welcome 25,000 refugees from Syria. John McCallum, the newly appointed Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, issued a call to corporate Canada to contribute to the effort, alongside government and individual Canadians.

With Minister McCallum signaling the leadership of Community Foundations of Canada, our community foundation network was tapped to partner with the corporate sector to allocate and direct contributions coming from large Canadian companies.

By the beginning of January 2016, we had established the Welcome Fund for Syrian Refugees to steward approximately $5.5 million in contributions from the corporate sector, including seed funding from Manulife that was quickly augmented by an historic $5 million donation from CN, as well as generous support from GM. Together these gifts formed the foundation upon which our network would respond to welcome and settle refugees from Syria into communities across Canada.

In just six weeks, we started to make the first strategic contributions to communities that were struggling to settle the large number of Syrian families arriving. What followed were a series of public announcements and events with community, charitable, corporate and government partners.

Now, 150 days since the Welcome Fund’s creation we have activated our community foundation network to support Canadian organizations helping government-sponsored refugees settle in 28 communities in every province through rent subsidies, emergency loan funds, urgent mental health care, start-up kits of household goods, language and employment training, and much more.

Collectively, we’ve used the Welcome Fund to mobilize local knowledge and community foundation connections to support organizations undertaking extraordinary front-line work to settle refugee families in the face of some challenging time frames and public expectations.

In considering how funding would be allocated across the country, we did our best to stick to a few key principles:

  • Do what’s best and align our resources with refugees arriving in our communities;
  • Use funding for the highest priorities, recognizing that there’s not enough to fulfill all needs;
  • Stay true to the purpose of the Welcome Fund, but be nimble enough to respect and respond to local needs shared by communities;
  • Look for opportunities to build a legacy of lasting relationships and best practices;
  • Respond to the urgent nature of the situation, while keeping an eye on sustainability and a focus on the long-term.

Impact stories from communities across Canada

What we’ve heard back from charities that received contributions from the Welcome Fund has been remarkable. It’s provided an extra support to help families that were hardest to house; move people closer to health care facilities; address mental health challenges affecting the settlement process; and create emergency loans to relieve unforeseen expenses for those moving into new homes.

Here’s just a few of the many stories that have emerged from the collective engagement around the Welcome Fund.

In Calgary, AB, more than 100 families (600 individuals) in particular financial distress were screened in and the gap between their monthly budget and their housing costs was individually assessed.

“With a little extra money each month families have been in a better position to focus their energies on other key aspects of settlement and integration such as language training, job search and hopefully employment.”

In St. John’s, NL, an Emergency Housing Fund was established to provide refugees with an interest-free short-term loan (or non-repayable grant in certain circumstances) to assist those who were experiencing difficulties in meeting essential living expenses. When the loan is repaid the money will be returned to the Fund to help ensure its longevity.

In Abbotsford, BC, funds were used to cover moving and start-up living costs (moving trucks, damage deposits, key household and gardening supplies) for 22 families (160 individuals), ultimately reducing stress and improving quality-of-life.

In Toronto, ON, the community foundation partnered with the city and a leading local charity working with refugees to launch a highly innovative program that will use contributions from the Welcome Fund to create leverage with landlords and incentivize them to lower their rental rates, effectively creating new lower-cost housing units. The approach will help refugees from Syria in the immediate-term and is also a prototyping exercise around housing solutions for the city.

Through our Welcome Fund work, we’ve demonstrated the power of our network to lead community conversations, build community knowledge and connect resources with needs. The leadership of local community foundations has been key to the success of the Welcome Fund’s roll out (so far). Through our Welcome Fund work, we’ve demonstrated the power of our network to lead community conversations, cultivate partnerships, build local knowledge and connect resources with needs. We’ve also advanced community belonging and inclusion as part of a country-wide effort, building a truly welcoming and Canadian story.