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Meet the man who spent more than $1M to help Syrian refugees build new lives in Canada.

3 min read

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Meet the man who spent more than $1M to help Syrian refugees build new lives in Canada.
Source: None

Jim Estill, CEO of Danby Appliances, is bringing more than 50 Syrian refugee families to Canada.

He found them homes, gave them jobs and even bought one man a dollar store.

When Jim Estill decided to sponsor 50 Syrian refugee families, he didn’t tell anyone about it at first—not his accountant, not his friends, not even his wife. It was the summer of 2015, and the death toll in Syria had reached a quarter of a million people, while another four million had fled the country. – Reports Mark Mann, at The Toronto Post.

So far Canadian businessman Jim Estill has spent well over $1M of his own money to sponsor the refugees. Source: AJ+ English

“I didn’t think people were doing enough things fast enough.” – Jim Estill

So the chief executive of home appliance company Danby, hatched a plan. He would put up CA$1.5m (US$1.1m/£910,000) of his own money to bring over 50 refugee families to Canada, and co-ordinate a community-wide effort to help settle them into their new life.

It would be a volunteer-driven project, but organised like a business. Volunteer directors led multiple teams, each in charge of a different aspect of settling newcomers.

Canada allows private citizens, along with authorised sponsorship groups, to directly sponsor refugees by providing newcomers with basic material needs like food, clothing, housing, and support integrating into Canadian society. But Estill was looking to make a big impact, quickly.

"I know how to scale things," he told Jessica Murphy, for BBC Toronto. Estill made his fortune as an entrepreneur, and previously worked as a director at Research in Motion, best known for producing the BlackBerry mobile phone.

Jaya James (left) with Gaziye Fettah and Rojin Haci, who were sponsored by Jim Estill and the Muslim Society of Guelph.
Every family has an Arabic-speaking mentor family and 4 or 5 English-speaking mentor families. Jaya James (left) with Gaziye Fettah and Rojin Haci, who were sponsored by Jim Estill and the Muslim Society of Guelph. Source: BBCi (copyright: JAN YOUNG BAKER)

While Estill was happy to put up the money himself, he would still need partners.

So he brought together 10 different faith-based organisations that were already looking at ways to help those affected by the Syrian civil war.

Sara Sayyed remembers the night her husband, president of the Muslim Society of Guelph, came back from that meeting and told her about Estill’s plan. "I was completely floored. I said: ‘Let’s get involved in this."

In November 2015, the local Guelph paper published an article about the plan. It was translated into Arabic and spread around the Middle East."People started emailing us directly from Turkey, from Lebanon, from within Syria, saying: ‘Can you help us? Can you do something?’" says Sayyed.

As Estill recalls it: "At first you get one email. You get one or two and say: ‘Let’s see what I can do.’ Then it turns into a hundred. And then it’s very difficult." Sayyed’s dining room table disappeared under a pile of sponsorship applications. Fifty-eight families were eventually selected.

Estill launched a program to provide Syrian refugees with jobs at Danby, along with regular English lessons. He has also helped others to establish their own business.
Jim soon realised that many newcomers were having difficulty finding work because they lacked experience or English language skills. Estill launched a program to provide Syrian refugees with jobs at Danby, along with regular English lessons. He has also helped others to establish their own business. Source: BBCi (copyright JAN YOUNG BAKER)

Estill does not come across as a typical big business executive.

Sara Sayyed says that Estill does not come across as a typical big business executive. "You think: CEO of a company, this image based on what you see on TV and stuff right? And he is the most down to earth guy dressed in regular jeans and a shirt driving a really old car, nothing fancy or flashy about him," she says.

She says she sees no reason other business people cannot copy his effort. "The biggest thing is just to have that financial backing. If more people from our business communities just stepped forward and said: ‘We’ll do this’ it can be done."

Estill says he reads and replies to all the emails he receives from people seeking to come to Canada and is looking to sponsor more, though the focus will be on bringing in relatives of the newcomers who have already arrived.

However, the businessman remains perplexed by the praise the effort has attracted worldwide. Still says he simply had the means to help and a vision of how to implement the plan.

And he says his parents, who sponsored two Ugandan refugees when he was a child, instilled humanitarian values in him.

"I guess I was raised right. That’s what I tell my mom," he says with a laugh.

Sources: Jessica Murphy (BBC News, Toronto); Danby

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