Today, we learned that entrepreneur Jim Estill is leading an effort to bring 50 displaced Syrian families to Guelph, Ont. as refugees. He spoke to Communitech News about the logistics of bringing 300 people to Canada, and what motivated his philanthropic decision.

Q – Fifty families – around 300 people in total – is a big number. The estimated sponsorship cost could reach $1.5 million. Why so generous?

A – Well, people might not expect it but it’s easier with 50 families. Everything flows better. Getting ESL support, getting a group of people together to meet these refugees’ needs — shelter, food, clothing — all of this is more easily done with 50 families coming in. 

As for the why… Well, you just should do the right thing. I was frustrated. It didn’t appear that anyone was doing anything. Running a business, you get the ability and experience to actually do things, so I thought, ‘Together, we can pull this all off.’

Q – How did everything get started?

A – We started about six weeks ago. I just picked up the phone and called up some people – local religious groups, non-profit groups, places like the Salvation Army – and I got the ball rolling. We had one big meeting where we got everyone in the room, got the ‘yes’ from them, and since then it’s just been a lot of phone calls and emails – specialized meetings when we need specialized work. 

We’ve built a real, solid plan on where these refugees can stay, in the short and long term, and we have a lot of process in place for the day they arrive. As for the press… I didn’t want the press involved. But in retrospect, it’s been very positive. People are coming out of the woodwork with places to stay and offers of help. I guess I’d reached out to too many people for it to not hit the news (laughing).”

Jim - Landscape - smaller

Danby CEO and philanthropist Jim Estill.

Q – As a businessman, what’s it been like working with religious groups and non-profits?

A – It’s been good working with them. Generally I have very, very good support here. All I do is ask and they contribute. There hasn’t been that much challenge, really. Everybody’s been giving freely. 

The biggest challenge is people thinking this is such a big deal. It’s not a big deal. It’s simple, and easy. We’re too quick to forget that. This is just an orchestration problem. I feel and hear the fear in some people. It’s… (laughing) These are people that are fleeing the same thing that we’re afraid of.

Q – With notable exceptions, the tech community is not well-known for its philanthropy. What prompted this decision on your part?

A – I’ve been getting this question a lot and I have to say I don’t really understand it. Imagine I took all your stuff. I said, ‘Pack a suitcase, we’re sending you across the river.’ You don’t speak the language, they won’t recognize your credentials… That could be you. That could happen to anyone.

On a personal level, when I was young, 11 or 12 years old, my family took in a couple of Ugandan refugees and it worked out very well. One of them went on to be CFO at Rockwell.

Q – Are you facing any obstacles in your mission?

A – My only slight frustration is that it’s all in the government’s hands: the government has to do the screening, the paperwork, basically let them come in. Once they’ve landed, we have all the systems and processes in place and we’re ready to handle the situation once they’re here. The slight delay is government, but we’ll get through that.

As for the financial side, that’s very simple too. My role is just an assurance that these people won’t be on welfare for the first year. You pay them the equivalent if they do, but you don’t just go and give people money so they live off of your earnings. That’s not what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to bring people in and integrate them to becoming productive members of society. That’s what they want, too.

Q – As this goes from dream to reality, what have you learned?

A – I’ve learned how easy it is to forget that we’re talking first and foremost about people. I believe these refugees will be hard-working, contributing people, and we can absorb them so easily… It will be good for us. Guelph is an example, actually. If you didn’t have one specific refugee from Hungary (Linamar founder Frank Hasenfratz), there’d be 10,000 fewer jobs here.

Photo: Syrian Refugees in Vienna by Josh Zakary is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

About The Author

Phil Froklage
Digital Journalist/Multimedia Producer

Phil Froklage is a writer, filmmaker and journalist in Waterloo Region obsessed with the future. Passionate about science and technology — and how it shapes our world — Phil likes nothing more than being surprised by the amazing things human beings can do.