The simple way Canadians can help Syrians

The feds set aside $100 million to match donations to the Syrian crisis, but donations have reached only a tenth that amount

Paramilitary police officers investigate the scene before carrying the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. The family — Abdullah, his wife Rehan and their two boys, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Galip — embarked on the perilous boat journey only after their bid to move to Canada was rejected. The tides also washed up the bodies of Rehan and Galip on Turkey's Bodrum peninsula Wednesday, Abdullah survived the tragedy. AP


When the disturbing photo of toddler Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach hit the news in the middle of last fall’s federal election, Canadian politicians scrambled to respond to the outpouring of grief and anger. Kurdi, his mother and five-year-old brother drowned in an attempt to flee Syria for somewhere safer. The family had relatives in Canada who hoped to resettle them here, personalizing a story that for four years had been somebody else’s nightmare.

As the political parties tried to outbid each other on their plans to resettle Syrian refugees, the then-Conservative government announced it would set aside up to $100 million to match donations to Canadian NGOs working in the region. But for all the tears shed over little Alan Kurdi and all the anger directed at the Conservatives for dragging their feet on refugee resettlement, Canadians have donated only $12 million since the matching funds were announced on Sept. 12. That’s not much more than a dollar per person for the nearly 11 million people displaced by the bloody conflict.

Related: Inside the tragedy that woke up the world

Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, whose Liberal government has replaced the Conservatives, yesterday announced Canada would extend the period for donations to be matched. Canadians have been focused on the Liberal promise to increase the number of refugees resettled, so now they’ll have an additional two months—until Feb. 29, 2016—to contribute. It’s “to say hey, there’s so many to come, to welcome, but don’t forget there are so many others to help over there,” Bibeau said.

To say there are “so many others” who won’t be coming to Canada is a massive understatement. The government’s goal is to resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of February, with another 10,000 or so by the end of 2016. That’s 35,000 Syrians out of the 4.4 million who have fled their country—actually, let’s make it more clear and write it as 4,400,000 people. An additional 6.6 million (6,600,000) have been displaced from their homes but remain in Syria. Giving up a winter coat or a high chair for the family settling in your city is a more personal way to help somebody, but it’s also far more limited than giving even a small amount of cash to one of the many agencies trying to feed and shelter the families who will never make it to Canada.

Related: Canada promises more humanitarian aid for victims of conflict

The NGOs say the focus during the election campaign became how to welcome refugees in Canada, which is where everyone has targeted their generosity. Collection centres across Canada have been overwhelmed with bags of clothes and household items for the newcomers to set up their homes. Now it’s time to consider those on the other side of the world.

“I think that when you have a guest coming to your home, you lay out the good food, you lay out the nice linen. And this is what we’re doing: we’re saying to new guests and new Canadians, we embrace you,” said Cicely McWilliam, a senior adviser at Save the Children. The extension of the matching funds is a chance for Canadians to embrace the millions of Syrians who are living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, or who remain under siege within the country’s borders. “The effort really now needs to be refocused a little bit so that that Canadian generosity can support efforts under way in the region,” McWilliam said. “Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan have almost doubled their populations in some cases. So they are straining.”

The conflict’s long, slow burn is one of the barriers to fundraising. Donors tend to respond to major unexpected events and feel better about giving to a problem with a clear solution. “It’s easier to donate to a natural disaster where you see okay, there’s been an earthquake, thousands of people have been killed, thousands of people are homeless,” said Rose Anne Devlin, a University of Ottawa professor who studies why people donate to charities. With Syria, “there is a bit of fatigue… You start to wonder what can I do to solve this problem? It requires [a] structural political solution and people get frustrated by that.”

None of this is to say Canadians haven’t already given a great deal to local efforts. Devlin points out there are hundreds of organizations collecting donations for Syrians arriving on our shores, so to draw a conclusion from the limited response to the matching funds would be to ignore the massive success of the work in those communities. And while $12 million pales in comparison to the size of the refugee challenge, World Vision Canada says the matching fund did help boost donations.

“We raised more money in the first two weeks after the picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach and the announcement of the matching fund than we did in the 4½ years of the Syrian conflict,” said Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada. “We’re not disappointed in the generosity at all.”

This is the first time the government has tried to use a matching fund during a long-running conflict, as opposed to a natural disaster. Both the government and the NGOs are evaluating how it’s worked, as well as how best to raise money to support people in the midst of a drawn-out emergency without some kind of galvanizing moment. What’s clear right now is there’s little Canadians can do to help end an incredibly complex war on the other side of the world. By reaching into their pockets, they could be doing ever so slightly more to help its victims.

Listen to part of Laura Payton’s interview with the University of Ottawa’s Rose Anne Devlin.


The simple way Canadians can help Syrians

  1. from http://www.international.gc.ca/development-developpement/humanitarian_response-situations_crises/syria-syrie.aspx?lang=eng#fund
    Look under the “More Information on the Syria Emergency Relief Fund” link found well down in the text.

    “The Syria Emergency Relief Fund is separate from the funds raised by charities and is administered separately by the Government of Canada. This means that a charity does not receive a matching dollar from the Government of Canada.”

    I am a member of a group to bring a Syrian refugee in to Canada. I think what the Gov is doing with the matching funds promise is dishonest. The funds have already been set aside and now they say we must match their $100 million donation or they won’t release all the funds? The funds are earmarked for Gov of Canada projects so why not just release them and stop trying to make us feel responsible.
    BTW, I find this is so insulting that I want no part of it. Less paperwork too.

    • Matching is a very honest way to gauge the willingness of the people to support certain initiatives. If people are not willing to donate to a certain cause, then it stands to reason that it is not particularly important to them and further shows that it is not something that they want their tax dollars spent on.

      • But then, if people aren’t even aware of the program, or where to donate, can it truly be said to be a measure of peoples’ willingness? I had completely forgotten about this matching funds program until this article; I doubt that I am alone in that regard. Not a peep have I seen in the news; not a single ad. Everything has been about the refugees we are bringing in.

        Seems the government doesn’t really want to spend that money; it was a Conservative promise, after all, and not nearly as high profile.

        • Keith,

          The unfortunate reality is that the episode in Germany and other European countries isn’t going to help convince Canadians that we want a bunch of Muslim refugees in Canada. Particularly young males.

          If something like this occurs in Canada……..you can expect our sypathies to dry up pretty damn quickly.

        • You can’t keep blaming the Cons for the lack of publicity that the fund is getting. They have been out of power for almost 3 months now. At some point the new govt. needs remind them of the program and where to donate if the program is a priority for them. If they okay with it failing then it is on them.

  2. The simple way Canadians can help Syrians: Contribute to the creation of comfortable, UN-managed, refugee towns in the Middle East, until peace returns.

  3. You really want to help the Syrian people?

    Help them bring peace to the country they would prefer to live in.


  4. It’s very clear that Syrian people need a lot of help from Canada. I support these people. What I do not like is the media, ALL, the media who simply post garbage which a six year old can write.

Sign in to comment.