​​​​​Image of Dr. Mostafa Atri
“At first, I thought about just sending money to a charity,” says Dr. Mostafa Atri, an abdominal radiologist at UHN with the Joint Department of Medical Imaging (JDMI). “But then I thought about trying to involve others.” (Photo: UHN)​

Dr. Mostafa Atri wanted to get involved with helping Syrian refugees, but felt overwhelmed. Millions of people were fleeing a country being destroyed by a conflict where all sides were targeting innocent people. What could one person in Canada do?

It was when he saw the image of the three-year-old Alan Kurdi's lifeless body, who drowned trying to escape through the Mediterranean Sea in September, that he decided any small action would help this, "very, very urgent situation."

 "At first, I thought about just sending money to a charity," explains Dr. Atri, an abdominal radiologist at UHN with the Joint Department of Medical Imaging (JDMI).

"But then I thought about trying to involve others. I thought that if I brought this initiative up to my program, maybe we could raise enough money to actually sponsor an individual to escape the violence, and then inspire other departments to do the same."

After discussing the idea with his colleagues at JDMI, which operates at UHN, Mount Sinai and Women's College Hospitals, Dr. Atri did some research and located Humanity First, a well-established charity that's assisting with private sponsorships of Syrian families.

"I learned that you need $12,600 to sponsor one person, so that's what I was hoping for at first," says Dr. Atri.

Far exceeding Dr. Atri's expectations, JDMI raised $34,000, enabling them to sponsor a Syrian family of seven.

The family safely arrived in Toronto on Jan. 20.

Starting small

"In four short years, half of Syrians are outside of Syria, and 225,000 have died. At JDMI, we all felt we had to do something," says Dr. Atri.

Humanity First indicates the differing costs of sponsorship based on the size of the family. Dr. Atri was closely following this chart to determine the size of the family JDMI could sponsor based on the funds raised.

Within four months, 25 JDMI staff members had raised a total of $34,000, with five members donating between $5,000 and $6,000 each.

This amount was enough to sponsor the family of seven, consisting of two grandparents, a young couple, the wife's sister, and two children under the age of 10.

Dr. Atri is working with a Canadian couple and their friends who have accepted the responsibility of re-settling the family. They are already taking care of other members of this same extended family. 

"Having met the Syrian family in their temporary residence alongside a number of Canadians responsible for their settlement, we realized how daunting the task of settling these newcomers is," says Dr. Atri.

"I have so much respect for the individuals involved in settling the refugees, as well as the courageous refugees themselves who have been forced by violence and instability to leave everything they know behind."

When the family arrives

Humanity First's private sponsors and large team of volunteers responsible for helping refugees settle within the first year of their arrival to Canada. The funds initially raised go to food, rent and day-to-day expenses.

The refugees are then assisted with essential tasks such as applying for health-care coverage, enrolling children in school, and applying for employment, among other things.

Sponsorship initiatives at UHN

Last fall, Emergency Department physicians Dr. Jennifer Bryan and Dr. Raghu Venugopal looked into helping Syrian refugees, also inspired by the image of Kurdi's lifeless body. They consulted with their fellow UHN emergency doctors, and raised a total of $60,000.

In collaboration with the Ripple Refugee Project, they were able to sponsor a family of eight that arrived in November.

"The family is overall doing very well. They have settled into their apartment and the community at large in Toronto has been welcoming and friendly," says Dr. Venugopal on the family, two months into their new life in Toronto.

"Needless to say, our family is very happy to be here. They do miss their family far away naturally but are out and about in the winter season exploring Toronto and moving forward with life! They are a wonderful family and making the very best of their new home."

To date, more than 12,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada. The federal government has committed to settling 25,000 through public and private sponsorship before the end of February.

 "We hope that other departments, programs and hospitals will find out about us raising these funds and do it too," says Dr. Atri.​

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