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Collaboration formed to enhance Canadian leadership in community and workplace sponsorship of refugees

June 25, 2019

Building on its globally recognized work on developing and scaling innovative approaches to support refugees, Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute announced today that it will be working with the uOttawa Refugee Hub to expand the reach of its BVOR Fund and Workplace Sponsorship Program to promote the sponsorship of refugees identified by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

It is exactly four years ago that the Diversity Institute’s Wendy Cukier, then Ryerson University Vice President of Research and Innovation, led the creation of the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge (RULSC). The move followed the launch of Lifeline Syria, led by (now) Senator Ratna Omidvar, which pledged to privately sponsor 1000 Syrian Refugees.   The Ryerson University Lifeline Syrian Challenge, initially planned to mobilize the Ryerson community to sponsor 10 Syrian families, but ended up expanding to include the other Toronto universities. In the end, it mobilized more than 1000 volunteers, raised $5 million and sponsored over 400 Syrian refugees. RULSC demonstrated that new approaches to private sponsorship which leverage technology, innovation, and sharing platforms and engage students can produce significant results.

The uOttawa Refugee Hub, launched its BVOR (Blended Visa Office-Referred) Fund in 2018 working with partners, sponsors, sponsorship agreement holders, the Shapiro Foundation and other Canadian Philanthropists, raising nearly $3.5 million to settle close to 700 refugees sponsored through 150 groups. In the case of BVOR sponsorship, the government covers half of the cost of sponsorship, with sponsors normally covering the other half. The uOttawa Refugee Hub BVOR Fund covered sponsor-side costs, enabling more people to sponsor refugees.

According to Cukier, “while private sponsorship of refugees in Canada is itself an innovation, our research has shown that the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, and the uOttawa Refugee Hub BVOR Fund, are highly transferable models of social innovation.  By eroding silos and traditional “ways of doing”, bringing together new partners, new processes, new resources and leveraging technologies, we were able to respond quickly and increase the human, social and financial resources to address the humanitarian crisis. RULSC was created in less than an hour through an exchange of emails and pivoted in terms of direction several times, expanding its goals as opportunities emerged.  It settled families across the country and also helped support a number of workplace initiatives where companies encouraged employees to engage in sponsorship. It was clear that timing was everything.”

"Our research has shown that the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, and the uOttawa Refugee Hub BVOR Fund, are highly transferable models of social innovation. By eroding silos and traditional “ways of doing”, bringing together new partners, new processes, new resources and leveraging technologies, we were able to respond quickly and increase the human, social and financial resources to address the humanitarian crisis"

Dr. Wendy Cukier ~ Founder, Diversity Institute

The uOttawa Refugee Hub is currently touring communities across Canada to hold information sessions for those interested in refugee sponsorship through the BVOR Program. The Diversity Institute and the uOttawa Refugee Hub have already started to engage employers directly and will host an employer roundtable, webinars and will utilize the social innovation technology platform Magnet, which connects employers and community organizations to economic and social development opportunities. Magnet has the potential to reach thousands of employers. Next week the Diversity Institute and the uOttawa Refugee Hub will connect with refugee support organizations, academics and government at the International Metropolis Conference, the promise of migration in Ottawa.

According to Emilie Coyle, Director of National Programs at the uOttawa Refugee Hub, “we were impressed by the research on the RULSC model and ways in which applying a social innovation approach unlocked resources and eroded barriers. In addition to mobilizing more than the “usual suspects” it championed new approaches and engaged employers in important new ways, for example, through the Magnet platform.”  This year, the uOttawa Refugee Hub hopes to engage Canadian employers to consider workplace sponsorship which was foundational in RULSC. The 2019 BVOR Fund will again cover the sponsor side of settlement costs.  Applications opened May 2 and end August 31st or whenever the funds are exhausted.  “We are pleased to have the Ryerson Diversity Institute work with us to expand our workplace sponsorship initiative and to ensure that none of Canada’s 1650 BVOR spots go unused, said Coyle. “We also know that the Diversity Institute has a particular focus on developing innovative approaches to support employment and self-employment for refugees and hope to leverage the assets of the Refugee Employment Round Table created by Senator Omidvar.”

Workplace-based refugee sponsorship occurs when employees of a workplace, and potentially the company and, or the employer themselves form groups to help refugee newcomers settle and integrate into life in their new community. As in any community sponsorship, sponsors commit to providing financial, emotional, and settlement supports for one year. Workplace sponsorship creates opportunities for social cohesion, team building, leadership, professional skills development, employee engagement and added social purpose for employees. Sponsorship also provides an opportunity for workplaces to directly engage in refugee resettlement, and build a bridge upon arrival with potential newcomer refugee employees. As part of RULSC several corporate leaders and employee groups engaged in workplace-based sponsorships and other companies provided skills training and jobs.

As part of RULC, Paramount Fine Foods CEO Mohamad Fakih, who arrived as an immigrant from Lebanon 20 years ago “paid it forward.” Fakih has a history of contributing to initiatives that positively contribute to the economic and social well-being of communities within Canada: “Many of us came to Canada with little in our pockets and have worked hard and been rewarded for the hard work with success. I see this as yet another opportunity to pay it forward and to invest in our future by giving qualified, hardworking people an opportunity to excel.”

Philanthropist and businessman, Sajjad Ebrahim also participated in RULSC.  “I was very troubled to see the extent of hardship, terror and anxiety the Syrian Refuges were having to endure and wanted to do something substantial to help as many as I could but did not know how to go about it,” said Ebrahim. “When I learned about the initiative taken by Ryerson University which was so unique in terms of getting donors, students, sponsoring groups, professionals and others involved in helping settle the refugees, I quickly committed to sponsoring 20 families and it has been an extremely rewarding experience in seeing how those families have settled.  I deliberately chose those families that had family members with special needs as others were less willing to sponsor them and I must say that without the program put together by Ryerson this would not have happened. I am extremely grateful to God for having being provided this opportunity.”

“Apart from fulfilling Canadians’ expectations that our country will lead the world in humanitarian aid and support, we know that immigrants and refugees fuel economic development,” said Cukier.  “Our research also shows that Canadians’ experience in privately sponsoring Syrian refugees was perhaps one of the best antidotes to hate and islamophobia. Not only does private sponsorship help newcomers quickly build social capital – effectively they arrive with a “family” to help them – but it also erodes distrust and builds relationships that will last a lifetime. I know firsthand some of the challenges but also the benefits.  My father was a refugee. I led the sponsorship of a Vietnamese family in 1979 as part of the original Operation Lifeline. And, I am directly involved in sponsoring several Syrian families.  The uOttawa Refugee Hub BVOR Fund creates an amazing opportunity, not just for the families being sponsored, but for Canadians to help respond to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the last century.”


The Diversity Institute

The Diversity Institute conducts and coordinates multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder research to address the needs of diverse Canadians, the changing nature of skills and competencies, and the policies, processes and tools that advance economic inclusion and success. Our action-oriented, evidence-based approach is advancing knowledge of complex barriers faced by underrepresented groups, leading practices to effect change, and producing concrete results.

The Refugee Hub 

The Refugee Hub was founded at the University of Ottawa in 2012. Its mission is to foster justice and human rights for refugees at local, national and international levels through innovative research, programs and partnerships. The Refugee Hub’s  projects include the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, which supports Canadian sponsors, and the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, which encourages and supports the adoption of community sponsorship programs in countries outside of Canada. More:

For more information, or to arrange an interview:

Kathleen Powderley, Responsible Communications, 416-803-5597,