The crisis in Syria, and the arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada over the next couple of months, has been top of mind for many of us. The problem seems so big, and solutions so complicated, that it’s easy to throw up our hands in despair.

Which is one of the reasons that Jim Estill’s decision to sponsor 50 displaced Syrian families in Guelph resonated so strongly with me, and with many in the tech community. One of our own was stepping up to make a difference.

Jim has obviously been very successful over his career. News of his generosity lines up nicely with Giving Tuesday and sets a positive tone for the season of giving this month.

So, inspired by Jim’s generosity, I plan on spending the next month highlighting different organizations in our community who need your time, money or both.

With the Syrian crisis on everyone’s mind, I sat down with Rick Cober Bauman and Kim Lester of the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCC). Cober Bauman is Executive Director; Lester, Revenue Development Director.

I wanted to find out more about the organization and how it helps.

The MCC is a service-based organization that works with all religions to offer humanitarian aid, globally and locally.

“Faith is acted out in how we help, not in how we preach,” Lester said.

The MCC works in 60 countries with more than 450 partners on a range of projects that focus on emergency relief, country development and peace-building. And it plays a crucial role in helping to respond to the Syrian crisis, both locally and in Syria.

In Waterloo Region, the MCC works with donors who want to sponsor families (like Estill is). The process is lengthy, but rewarding, Cober Bauman says.

To be a sponsor, organizations and individuals must raise about $27,000, the cost to help a family of four get settled in their first year in Canada. Throughout that year, the sponsor group supports the family through its experience. The sponsor group, with the aid of the MCC, helps refugees set up their lives, find apartments, go to school and find work.

To work with a family, you’ll need a criminal background check, and prove your auto and homeowner’s liability insurance coverage.

Currently 130 groups in Ontario have signed on to help refugees. If all applications are approved, that works out to about 500 people who will be supported through their first year in the province.

For Cober Bauman, the sponsor organization was life-changing. His church sponsored Vietnamese refugees when he was a teenager. He grew up with a Vietnamese family, the members of which have gone on to become doctors and lawyers in Canada.

Of course, not everyone is looking to sponsor an entire family for a year. If you would like to help, there are a variety of options:

  • You can give funds to a group that is looking to sponsor a family.
  • You can give funds to help the MCC run the program. The MCC only takes a five-per-cent admin fee to help defray the cost of bringing a family to Canada. Due to overwhelming demand and infrastructure needs, the MCC needs to hire someone to boost capacity.
  • You can donate to the MCC thrift shops. The Kitchener location is at 50 Kent St., Kitchener. One hundred per cent of the net proceeds of the thrift shop, which is run by volunteers, goes to the MCC for relief work. Gently used or new clothing, boots, household items and toiletries are especially appreciated.
  • You can donate money to be turned into thrift shop gift certificates for the families. Every family will receive gift certificates to the thrift shop that will let them choose their own clothing and necessities.

In Syria, and Syrian-refugee communities, the MCC is actively helping to make dismal living conditions more bearable. These efforts can range from providing emergency relief kits that you can help build, to money that helps keep water running in refugee buildings.

The MCC’s main effort is to give dignity and hope to the displaced families.

“They just want to go home,” Lester said. “These are people like you and me. They are well-educated, had jobs, families, went to school, had birthday parties and pets. Now their entire life is in a bag.”

This is an unprecedented humanitarian need, to a scale the MCC has never seen, but Cober Bauman has been overwhelmed by the global response.

“After the Paris bombings, we were expecting a slump in response,” he said. “Instead it spiked. People are angry and want to help. The attack encouraged people to step up more.”

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Welcome to the first weekend of the last month of 2015. As we wrap up the year, there’s a lot to keep us busy… I see and hear that tonight, Wednesday, Dec. 2., is the Sleep Tight PJ Party! At the Hacienda Sarria (1254 Union St., Kitchener). The free community pajama party begins at 7 p.m. Wear your pj’s and bring a brand new pair to support the Sleep Tight campaign. Pajamas will be given to people in need in the region. Registration is required… The Christkindl Market will look a bit different this year. Starting Thurs. Dec. 3 at 10 a.m., the Christkindl market is still at Kitchener City Hall (200 King St. W., Kitchener) but has expanded to include a holiday market along King Street. The holiday market runs daily through Dec. 6. and features vendors, Christmas trees for sale, ice skating in Carl Zehr Square, photos with Santa and free horse-drawn carriage rides.