Jim Estill is the CEO of Danby, an appliances company in Guelph, near Toronto, in Canada. He’s just been awarded the Order of Ontario – his province’s highest honour – for sponsoring the resettlement of 56 Syrian refugee families.
With a network of volunteers, the programme helps refugees find accommodation, work and schooling for their children so they can fully integrate into Canadian life. He's even refurbished empty office space into new homes and helped several set up their own businesses.
Estil says he was inspired by one of his best friends – Franz Hasenfratz – a refugee who fled communist Hungary and went on to establish a car plant with over 10,000 employees
“I was trying to drown out the xenophobes,” Estill told Toronto Lifein an interview this week. “When we think of Italians or Irish, we don’t think of them as immigrants. They’re just people.”
How did it all start?
In the summer of 2015, the refugee crisis had reached its nadir. Images of bodies washing up on beaches and hundreds of people crammed onto rickety boats were becoming a daily occurrence.
He worked out that it would cost around CAD$30,000 (£18,000) to support a family of five for a year and that with a budget of CAD$1.5m (£900,000) he could support 50.
He gathered a group of local religious leaders to launch a project which he titled “Refugees: The Right Thing To Do”. After rallying his local community, Estill was able to recruit dozens of volunteers to help with administration, finance, logistics and sorting through donations.
How do the families get in touch?
The project got off the ground in November 2015 when an article about Estill appeared in his local newspaper: the Guelph Mercury. After that, refugees across the Middle East began to get in touch with him after seeing the story on social media.
Some of those families who emailed him early were lucky enough to be taken in, as well as the families of Syrian refugees already living in the Guelph area. But deciding who the project could support and who it couldn’t was difficult: “It was like encountering a thousand beggars. Who do you help? How do you choose who starves?”
What does he have to say about it now?
Estill emphasises that he doesn’t want the families to be dependent on the project, instead wanting to offer them the opportunity to establish themselves in the community.
It’s not about the money, it’s about successful settlement, which is 50 families, working, paying taxes, buying groceries where you and I buy them and speaking English. It’s more about the volunteer base getting them integrated.
There’s always challenges, but that’s not dissimilar to running any business and it is the volunteer base that does it.
Now that he’s proved it’s possible, he hopes his actions help to inspire other business leaders across Canada and across the world. He has this simple philosophy:
I didn’t want to be 80 years old and know that I did nothing during the greatest humanitarian crisis of my time.