When Ms. McLorg walked into the hotel lobby to meet Mr. Mohammad and his wife, Eman, she had a letter to explain how sponsorship worked: For one year, Ms. McLorg and her group would provide financial and practical support, from subsidizing food and rent to supplying clothes to helping them learn English and find work. She and her partners had already raised more than 40,000 Canadian dollars (about $30,700), selected an apartment, talked to the local school and found a nearby mosque.
Ms. McLorg, the mother of two teenagers, made her way through the crowded lobby, a kind of purgatory for newly arrived Syrians. Another member of the group clutched a welcome sign she had written in Arabic but then realized she could not tell if the words faced up or down. When the Mohammads appeared, Ms. McLorg asked their permission to shake hands and took in the people standing before her, no longer just names on a form. Mr. Mohammad looked older than his 35 years. His wife was unreadable, wearing a flowing niqab that obscured her face except for a narrow slot for her eyes. Their four children, all under 10, wore donated parkas with the tags still on.
For the Mohammads, who had been in Canada less than 48 hours, the signals were even harder to read. In Syria, Abdullah had worked in his family’s grocery stores and Eman had been a nurse, but after three years of barely hanging on in Jordan, they were not used to being wanted or welcomed. “You mean we’re leaving the hotel?” Abdullah asked. To himself, he was wondering, “What do these people want in return?”
Much of the world is reacting to the refugee crisis — 21 million displaced from their countries, nearly five million of them Syrian — with hesitation or hostility. Greece shipped desperate migrants back to Turkey; Denmarkconfiscated their valuables; and even Germany, which has accepted more than half a million refugees, is struggling with growing resistance to them. Broader anxiety about immigration and borders helped motivate Britons to take the extraordinary step last week of voting to leave the European Union.
In the United States, even before the Orlando massacre spawned new dread about “lone wolf” terrorism, a majority of American governors said they wanted to block Syrian refugees because some could be dangerous. Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has called fortemporary bans on all Muslims from entering the country and recently warned that Syrian refugees would cause “big problems in the future.” The Obama administration promised to take in 10,000 Syrians by Sept. 30 but has so far admitted about half that many.
Just across the border, however, the Canadian government can barely keep up with the demand to welcome them. Many volunteers felt called to action by the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose body washed up last fall on a Turkish beach. He had only a slight connection to Canada — his aunt lived near Vancouver — but his death caused recrimination so strong it helped elect an idealistic, refugee-friendly prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
The Toronto Star greeted the first planeload by splashing “Welcome to Canada” in English and Arabic across its front page. Eager sponsors toured local Middle Eastern supermarkets to learn what to buy and cook and used a toll-free hotline for instant Arabic translation. Impatient would-be sponsors — “an angry mob of do-gooders,” The Star called them — have been seeking more families. The new government committed to taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees and then raised the total by tens of thousands.
“I can’t provide refugees fast enough for all the Canadians who want to sponsor them,” John McCallum, the country’s immigration minister, said in an interview.
In the ideal version of private sponsorship, the groups become concierges and surrogate family members who help integrate the outsiders, called “New Canadians.” The hope is that the Syrians will form bonds with those unlike them, from openly gay sponsors to business owners who will help them find jobs to lifelong residents who will take them skating and canoeing. Ms. McLorg’s group of neighbors and friends includes doctors, economists, a lawyer, an artist, teachers and a bookkeeper.
Advocates for sponsorship believe that private citizens can achieve more than the government alone, raising the number of refugees admitted, guiding newcomers more effectively and potentially helping solve the puzzle of how best to resettle Muslims in Western countries. Some advocates even talk about extending the Canadian system across the globe. (Slightly fewer than half of the Syrian refugees who recently arrived in Canada have private sponsors, including some deemed particularly vulnerable who get additional public funds. The rest are resettled by the government.)
The fear is that all of this effort could end badly, with the Canadians looking naïve in more ways than one.
The Syrians are screened, and many sponsors and refugees take offense at the notion that they could be dangerous, saying they are often victims of terrorism themselves. But American officials point out that it is very difficult to track activity in the chaotic, multifaceted Syrian war. Several Islamic State members involved in the 2015 Paris attacks arrived on Europe’s shores from Syria posing as refugees.
Some of the refugees in Canada have middle- and upper-class backgrounds, including a businessman who started a Canadian version of his medical marketing company within a month after arriving. But many more face steep paths to integration, with no money of their own, uncertain employment prospects and huge cultural gaps. Some had never heard of Canada until shortly before coming here, and a significant number are illiterate in Arabic, which makes learning English — or reading a street sign or sending an email in any language — a titanic task. No one knows how refugees will navigate the currents of longing, trauma, dependence or resentment they may feel.
And volunteers cannot fully anticipate what they may confront — clashing expectations of whether Syrian women should work, tensions over how money is spent, families that are still dependent when the year is up, disagreements within sponsor groups.
Still, by mid-April, only eight weeks after their first encounter with Ms. McLorg, the Mohammads had a downtown apartment with a pristine kitchen, bikes for the children to zip around the courtyard, and a Canadian flag taped to their window. The sponsors knew the children’s shoe sizes; Abdullah and Eman still had keys to Ms. McLorg’s house. He studied the neighborhood’s supermarkets, and his wife took a counseling course so she could help others who had experienced dislocation and loss. When the male sponsors visited, she sat at the dining room table with them instead of eating in the kitchen — as she would have done back home — as long as her husband was around, too.
Mr. Mohammad searched for the right words to describe what the sponsors had done for him. “It’s like I’ve been on fire, and now I’m safe in the water,” he said.
But he and other new arrivals were beginning to confront fresh questions: How were they supposed to work with these enthusiastic strangers? What would it mean to reinvent their lives under their watch?
Job Description: Be Ready for Anything
As sponsors sign the paperwork that commits them, no one really explains the potential range of their unofficial duties: showing a newcomer to spit in a dentist’s sink by miming the motions, rushing over late at night to calm a war-rattled family terrified by a garage door blown open by the wind, or using Google Translate to tell children who lived through war and exile that they are supposed to wear pink at school for anti-bullying day.
One April morning, Liz Stark, the grandmother in chief of another sponsor group, could not find Mouhamad Ahmed, the father in the family. She tried his phone and waited in vain outside their new apartment. This was a problem: Wissam, his wife, was in labor with their fifth child.
The pregnancy had been anxious because the couple had lost even more than their old life in Syria, where Mr. Ahmed used to farm wheat, cotton and cumin. They had spent years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, their three children never attending school because tuition was too expensive. Ms. Ahmed became pregnant there with their fourth child, but labor was troubled and the girl lived only six hours. They named her Amira, which means princess.
“I was thinking maybe the same thing will happen to me here as well,” Ms. Ahmed said.
As Ms. Stark hunted for Mr. Ahmed, Peggy Karas, another sponsor, stayed at the hospital massaging Ms. Ahmed’s hand during contractions. Like other such pairs, the two women had come together through opaque, bureaucratic machinery. A United Nations agency referred Ms. Ahmed and her family to Canadian officials who interviewed and screened them, then passed their file to a new nonprofit dedicated to matching Syrians with private sponsors, who had 24 hours to say yes or no based on the barest of details.
Ms. Stark and many of her co-sponsors were retired teachers, bossy and doting, and they had become hellbent on bringing this new child into the world safely. They had introduced Ms. Ahmed to the vitamins she would take, the machines that would monitor her, the hospital ward where she would deliver. The older women had repeated the doctors’ reassurances that all would go smoothly this time. They had helped her pick out tiny outfits and baby gear, but she was too superstitious to take them home, so they formed a small mountain in a sponsor’s living room.
Ms. Stark had recruited another newly arrived Syrian refugee to serve as an interpreter during labor. When she finally found Mr. Ahmed, who had been playing soccer, unaware of what was happening, she ushered him to the hospital room, where he took over holding his wife’s hand.
Suddenly a medical team rushed her away, saying the umbilical cord was in a dangerous position and she needed an emergency cesarean section. Ms. Ahmed, terrified, asked her husband to take care of their children if she did not survive. As Mr. Ahmed collapsed, sobbing, the sponsors asked his permission to pray.
When a nurse finally appeared to say the newborn was healthy, whisked off to intensive care for observation, Ms. Ahmed said she would not believe it until she held the baby, but Mr. Ahmed was jubilant. He called his father in Syria and let him choose a name: Julia, the family’s first Canadian citizen.
Once the infant was home, she went from being the Ahmed family member the sponsors worried about most to the one they fretted about least. She would grow up hearing English, going to Canadian preschool and beyond. For her siblings — 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and an 8-year-old brother — the sponsors found a program for children who had never been to school. Their father, who had gone through only second grade, worked on learning enough English to find a job.
Ms. Ahmed worried about her children. “What if my kids don’t adjust, don’t settle in school very well?” she asked.
Everyone was on a deadline: After one year, the sponsors’ obligation ends, and the families are expected to become self-sufficient. Toronto rents are high, and the Ahmeds may not be able to stay in the relatively inexpensive apartment the sponsors found for them — the monthly rent is 1,400 Canadian dollars, or about $1,100 — even if Mr. Ahmed finds a job.
Ms. Stark was optimistic because she had lived through other versions of this story. Almost four decades ago, as a young geography teacher, she joined in the first mass wave of Canadian private sponsorship, in which citizens resettled tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Hmong. She helped sponsor three Vietnamese brothers and a Cambodian family, later attending their weddings, celebrating the births of their children and watching them find their places in Toronto, a city so diverse that half the population is foreign-born. Now some former Southeast Asian refugees are completing the cycle by sponsoring Syrians.
Like many sponsors, Ms. Stark believes that her country is especially suited to resettling refugees, with its vast size, strong social welfare system, and a government that emphasizes multiculturalism. Canada has not endured acts of terrorism like the Sept. 11 hijackings or the Paris attacks, or even an assault on the scale of the Orlando nightclub killings. And with only one land border, little illegal immigration and a tenth of the population of the United States, Canada is hungry for migrants. Officials around the country have clamored to bring Syrian refugees to their provinces.
“We are an accident of geography and history,” said Ratna Omidvar, who co-founded Lifeline Syria, a group that matches Syrians with sponsors.
Opposition to the influx has been relatively muted. The Conservative Party argues that the country is taking in more refugees than it can provide for, but supports accepting Syrians. Some Canadians complain that the country should take care of its own first, and new chapters of the Soldiers of Odin, a European anti-immigrant group, have cropped up in recent months. A few incidents targeting Syrians — graffiti reading “Syrians go home and die” at a Calgary school, a pepper spray attack at an event welcoming refugees — drew widespread condemnation.
One May evening, three weeks after Julia’s birth, Ms. Stark stopped by the Ahmeds’ apartment with a plastic table for the balcony and cradled the baby. She had a new grandchild, but she had spent more time with Julia. The cookie-baking retirees were planning a party to welcome her the Syrian way, by feasting on a newly slaughtered lamb on her 40th day. Meanwhile, Mr. Ahmed had adopted a new custom: He sometimes brought his wife breakfast in bed and got the children ready. “When I came here, I saw men just doing everything that women do in Syria,” he said. “And I thought, yeah, of course, I will do the same.”
That night, Ms. Ahmed handed Ms. Stark a form from the twins’ school, unsure what it was about. “What? You’re going to the Blue Jays game?” she crowed to the boy, Majed, who grinned back under his dark curls. Then she turned to his parents. “This costs money, but your sponsors will pay for it because this is important.”
The Ahmeds were so frugal that their benefactors sometimes worried whether they were buying enough to eat. Ms. Ahmed said they wanted to purchase no more than the family needed. “The sponsors worked for the money they are giving us, and we’re not just going to throw it in the garbage,” she explained later.
Before leaving, Ms. Stark explained the proper Tylenol dosage for the couple’s daughter, Zahiya, who had a fever. She and her twin now spent their school bus rides exchanging language lessons with a pair of Chinese brothers, pointing to objects and naming them. One day when their parents tried to bring them home after a dentist appointment, the Syrian children refused, insisting on returning to school for the time remaining.
English words were starting to emerge from the older children’s mouths, but the sponsors and the adult refugees could barely understand one another without help, often relying on mimed gestures or balky translation apps. Even when the groups use interpreters, they often get stuck in roundelays of Canadian and Syrian courtesy, so reluctant to impose that they do not say what they mean. Ms. Ahmed, who had a first-grade education and was not attending English classes because she was home with a newborn, said that not being able to communicate was painful.
“Sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind,” she said, because she felt so close to the sponsors but could not even tell them little things about the baby.
Still, some groups faced greater challenges. Some Syrians have backed out before traveling to Canada, intimidated by the geographic and cultural leap. Sam Nammoura, a refugee advocate in Calgary, said he was tracking dozens of cases in which Syrian-Canadians sponsored friends and relatives and then left them destitute. Other pairings have turned out to be mismatches of expectations; one formerly well-off Syrian family expressed disappointment that its apartment was a second-floor walk-up and lacked a washing machine. Others were shocked to discover that their sponsors were posting Facebook messages and blog entries about them that strangers could read.
Even when sponsors and refugees become enmeshed in one another’s lives, they do not fully know one another. Not every family is open about its history, and many sponsors would like to know the worst but do not want to ask. (The Ahmeds and the Mohammads asked not to be identified by their full surnames, and were reluctant to publicly share details of their experiences in Syria because they feared reprisals against relatives still there. Most of the refugees in this article left Syria around 2013, during fighting between the Assad regime and rebels.)
The sponsors do not share everything about themselves, either. Emma Waverman, the leader of another cluster, was telling her co-sponsors about the stirring bar mitzvah speech her son had written about the Syrians they were aiding when another woman stopped her.
“Do they know we’re Jewish?” she asked.
Nurturing Without Nagging
Few issues are as delicate as how hard the sponsors should push and when the refugees can say no. Should the Syrians live close to downtown sponsors or in outer-ring neighborhoods with more Middle Easterners — and is it right for sponsors to decide without consulting them? The Canadians raise tens of thousands of dollars for each newcomer family; who controls how it is spent?
Some worry that sponsors are overpowering the refugees with the force of their enthusiasm. Kamal Al-Solaylee, a journalism professor at Ryerson University who is originally from Yemen, said he had noticed a patronizing tone, as when some sponsors highlighted their volunteering on social media. “The white savior narrative comes into play,” he said.
When Muaz and Sawsan Ballani and their 2-year-old son arrived here in February, they seemed so disoriented and alone that their sponsors became especially eager to nurture them. Mr. Ballani, 26, had once worked in his father’s clothing store, which was run out of their home. Now he introduced himself to his sponsors by showing them a picture of his oldest brother: not a smiling snapshot, but an image of the young man lying dead back home, blood streaming from his body. (Mr. Ballani believed that his brother had been caught in fighting between the regime and the opposition, but in the chaos of the conflict, he said, he could not learn more.)
Sawsan wed Muaz when she was 16 in an arranged marriage, rushed because of bombings and failing electricity; a month later, they fled. Now 20, she had not seen her family since.
The couple had been languishing in Jordan, sleeping in a house crammed with too many people, not enough beds or blankets, and ants that crawled over their son, named Abdulrahman, after Mr. Ballani’s dead brother, and nicknamed Aboudi. One of Mr. Ballani’s brothers was still stuck in the house in Jordan, he said, and his brother’s widow was living in a park in Syria with her three children, foraging for food.
“If we hadn’t come here, we would have died,” he said.
The family’s sponsors started as mostly strangers to one another — a few former colleagues, a friend of a friend. Helga Breier, a market research consultant and one of the organizers, was drawn into sponsorship last summer, when she felt haunted during her Mediterranean vacation by the suffering across the water.
The Ballanis became their galvanizing cause. Together they found a bright apartment near their homes and countered the bareness — the family had few belongings — with cheery posters and tags labeling everything in English: lamp, cupboard, wall, door. The couple spoke almost no English, so to teach Mr. Ballani to get where he needed to go, the sponsors helped him photograph the route. When Aboudi threw tantrums in day care, they sat with him so his mother could stay in language class. The couple cooked elaborate Middle Eastern thank-you meals for the sponsors and mostly welcomed their interventions. Mr. Ballani donned a Toronto Maple Leafs hat that he wore day after day, and his wife gamely hopped on a toboggan.
Sometimes the sponsors barely hid their views of how the Ballanis should adjust. At a spring potluck dinner, Ms. Ballani described how she had recently traveled by subway on her own, a trip she could not have imagined taking just a few weeks before. The sponsors around the table, firm feminists, asked what else she might like to do herself.
She turned to her husband. “I’m going to ask you an honest question,” she said. “Would you let me work here?” As they waited for the answer, the Canadian women held their breath.
“Yes, but I wouldn’t have let you work back” in Jordan, he said, adding that even women who behaved traditionally there were often harassed and that those who appeared too independent faced worse. Ms. Ballani pressed forward: She wanted to attend university and have a career of her own, she said, a daunting set of goals for a woman with only a seventh-grade education. The Canadians beamed; two high-fived each other.
At the same time, the sponsors worried that they were becoming helicopter parents, as Ms. Breier put it. When the Syrians skipped English lessons (Aboudi sometimes kept them awake at night) or missed an appointment for donated dental services (a misunderstanding), the sponsors agonized over what to say, debating on the messaging app Slack. Should they show up every morning at the Ballanis’ apartment to make sure they got to class? Aboudi did not nap regularly and seemed to consume a lot of sugar — he drank soda, sometimes for breakfast — so should they offer advice?
Mr. Nammoura, the refugee advocate in Calgary, said he saw a pattern among the cases. The Canadians, who feel responsible for the refugees’ success, want to give them as much help and direction as possible. But many Syrians, finally safe after years of war and flight, want to exhale before launching into language regimens and job searches, and sometimes feel that sponsors are meddling.
When the Ballani sponsors sought advice from an Arab community center caseworker and an older Syrian mother, they were told to be harsher — to threaten fines or loss of sponsorship if the couple did not accept their guidance. Instead, the sponsors tried to strike a balance, being insistent on issues like health and education but easing off in other areas.
A few weeks before Ramadan, the Ballanis raised the prospect of missing school during the month of long fasts. “It’s really hard because we have to fast 16 or 18 hours,” Muaz Ballani told the sponsors.
Ms. Breier and her partners dismissed the idea, saying they feared that the couple would lose their slots if they missed too many classes. The Ballanis quickly relented. It was not clear how much freedom they felt to express disagreement to outsiders; they seemed reluctant to acknowledge anything but gratitude.
That morning, Ms. Ballani said she and her husband never had different opinions from the sponsors. “We’ve never felt like they were telling us what to do,” she added.
Another weekend, the extended group gathered for a picnic, the first birthday party anyone had thrown for Mr. Ballani. He was deeply moved by the gesture. “A human life has value here,” he had said in an interview. “You can feel it everywhere.”
But the conversation at the party turned to his relatives in Syria, and he seemed distant as the Canadians presented his cake. Like many of the newcomers, he regularly receives calls and texts from family members, some in harrowing straits, as news reports describe starvation back home and mass drownings in the Mediterranean.
“I am really thankful to them; I don’t want them to misunderstand,” he said later about the sponsors. “It’s like I’m two people at the same time, one happy and one unhappy,” because of his family’s continued suffering.
The sponsors had been working on that, too, helping match Mr. Ballani’s brother in Jordan with another Toronto sponsor group and laboring over the paperwork. By late spring they had news: His relatives could arrive by year’s end.
Mr. Ballani, overjoyed, started planning what he would show his relatives in the city that had taken him in. This time, he would be the guide.
“Now it’s my turn to help,” he said.
Navigating Their Own Way
Three months after the Mohammads’ awkward first meeting with Kerry McLorg and the other sponsors at the airport hotel, they had clicked into a productive rhythm, settling into Canada faster than anyone had expected.
They went on a picnic to Niagara Falls and danced around a maypole at a spring festival. The girls won student-of-the-month honors. Bayan, the eldest, who had whipped past the boys she raced on Jordanian streets, was now beating runners from schools across the city. When the sponsors came to give informal language lessons, Ahmad, the 4-year-old, liked to try new phrases in English, such as “Good job!”
Still, there was some culture shock. When Abdullah Mohammad took the children to a community pool, he encountered a woman in a string bikini. “I ran away,” he said later. “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”
Ms. McLorg, measured and methodical, had organized the sponsor group, but the most energetic member was an artist named Susan Stewart, with a seemingly endless list of activities for the family and long email exchanges with the children’s teachers. During her turn to give English lessons, she brought flashcards down to the courtyard, telling the children to alternate between loops on their bicycles and new words. She was sweetly relentless, which was partly why the family had made so much progress, the other sponsors said.
When Mr. Mohammad voiced interest in working, Ms. Stewart became consumed with helping him find a job. Of all the tests for the family — and, by extension, the sponsors — this was perhaps the most crucial. So Ms. Stewart found an Arabic-speaking settlement counselor to advise Mr. Mohammad and drove him to a job fair for refugees, where they struck up a conversation with a Syrian supermarket owner. After he invited Mr. Mohammad for an interview, Ms. Stewart fashioned a résumé from a questionnaire she had helped him fill out.
“I am keen to learn all aspects of the trade from stocking and organizing shelves to marketing strategies and Canadian shopping habits,” she wrote. Describing his work experience — doing odd jobs during his three years in Jordan — she wrote, “As a refugee I had to be resourceful and find work wherever I could.” Even though the interview would be in Arabic, she drilled him in English phrases like “I can stock shelves.”
“Ten more times!” she told him as they drove to the interview.
When he was offered the part-time position, the sponsors were thrilled. But a few days later, he called the Canadians to say he would turn it down. He struggled with taking money from the sponsors — back home, others had come to his family for help, and it was “really hard to be on the receiving end,” he said. But he wanted to consider options, such as becoming a mechanic. In Syria or Jordan, he had never had freedom to choose his work. “It’s always what you have to do to earn a living rather than what you really want to do,” he said later.
And he did not want to take a job until he improved his English, he said, because he did not want any more favors or charity. At the supermarket, unable to answer basic questions from customers, “I would be a burden to my employer,” he added. He had been annoyed at Ms. Stewart for pressing so hard, he said later, but mostly he was embarrassed to pass on the job after she had done so much.
But Ms. McLorg saw a plus side: Mr. Mohammad was starting to navigate his own path in Canada, and the relationship between the sponsors and the family, so lopsided at the start, was beginning to balance out. “Our job was to help them come into Canada and show them the options that are here,” she said.
In mid-May, at the end of a routine meeting with the sponsors and the Mohammads, she shared news of her own: She had breast cancer. Now that she was facing surgery, she was the one who was vulnerable, and the Syrians were the ones who were checking on her.
They brought flowers and chocolates; the other sponsors, now practiced in the logistics of caring, offered meal deliveries and other assistance. “I had no intention of building my own support group, but I have one now,” Ms. McLorg said.
Bayan and Batoul, the two oldest Mohammad children, made get-well cards using the same set of watercolors the sponsors had used to make greeting signs that first day at the airport hotel. The morning after Ms. McLorg’s operation, when she made her way down to her living room, the cards were the first things she saw.