By Stephen Watt
January 12, 2024

One of the nice things about living in Toronto is how it exposes you to ideas, people and projects that might be harder to come by elsewhere. My name is Stephen Watt, and for many years I’ve been a marketing manager at the Rotman School of Management. In my off hours, I run a volunteer organization called Northern Lights Canada, which aims to get Canadians involved in the private sponsorship of refugees.


Like many people, I first became involved in private sponsorship during the civil war in Syria. In 2016, I answered a request for volunteers from a local settlement agency based in St. James Town, in downtown East, called Community Matters Toronto. I submitted a few applications through CMT for Syrians displaced by the war, and realized what a gift this private sponsorship program was – a way for ordinary Canadians to make a huge and positive impact in the lives of persecuted people around the world.


Flash forward to 2019, and dozens of long nights and submitted applications later. Those applications, sent to Immigration by mail and email, like wishes made on shooting stars, had done their work and brought many warm and dynamic people into my life, and into the lives of friends and fellow sponsors. In addition to the original Syrian arrivals, we had helped bring LGBTQ+ from Iran, Christians from Pakistan and Sri Lankan Tamils held in detention in Papua New Guinea, among others.


A friend of mine, Jaivet Ealom, a student in political economy at the University of Toronto, suggested that we form an organization, which would help us connect to more volunteers, and extend the reach and credibility of these efforts.


Jaivet had his own miraculous story, having come to Canada as an asylum seeker all on his own. He was the only person to successfully escape the refugee detention centre established by Australia on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, in the middle of the South Pacific. That remarkable journey is detailed in his book Escape from Manus Prison, published by Penguin in 2022.


After settling in Canada, Jaivet had become involved in organizing the Rohingya Centre to help those displaced by the civil conflict in his own home country of Burma. Drawing on that knowledge, he helped me develop a new group, which we called Northern Lights Canada. We applied for Northern Lights to become a not-for-profit, and built a website to advance the mission of educating and inspiring other potential sponsors and helpers.


Our network kept growing, and soon we were involved in big projects to bring hundreds of those detained on Manus Island, and in 2021, those stuck in Afghanistan after the takeover by the new Taliban regime. This work occasionally attracted the attention of the media, which brought in new volunteers.


And the refugees kept coming – refugees no longer, but arriving at the airport as permanent residents. Not all of them became personal friends, but many did, and each of them brought their own gifts to the communities lucky enough to have them.


One thing that Jaivet points out in his book is how much refugees have to offer a country that is willing to give them a fair opportunity.

“These were smart, talented people, the most resourceful on earth: their survival and arrival on these foreign shores was proof of that. They were not the richest people in their home countries, or the most privileged – just the most capable. They had so much to offer the world. They just needed a chance.”

Jaivet’s own impact as an advocate and writer was proof of his hypothesis, and he is not the only example. Shams Erfan, now studying in thev Transitional Year Programme at U of T, also happens to be an accomplished journalist, and the writer-in-residence at George Brown College, for the second year in a row. He fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took offense to his work teaching English to children, when he himself was just a teenager.


Another friend, Jon Jonaid, fled the Rohingya genocide in Burma, and then helped launch the Archipelago, a literary magazine by refugees in Indonesia. (He and Shams also started the protest movement in Indonesia).


Jon is now working under Senator Marilou McPhedran in Ottawa, serves as a prominent Rohingya advocate, and has launched an online effort called Humans in Flight that tells the stories of refugee newcomers in Canada and those who helped them get here. Another success story: Khuloud Hadaq, a woman who fled the war in Syria, who runs a publishing house calledv Ishtar House to bring the best of Arab literature to Canada.


There are musicians and photographers, writers and entrepreneurs – and outside the world of business and culture, construction workers, homemakers and truck drivers – each holding a warm appreciation for this country, and for the opportunity to reinvent themselves and live up to their potential.


Our shared mission continues to evolve. Since 2018, many of the refugees we have sponsored happen to be Hazaras from Afghanistan, who are the target of genocidal violence under the Taliban regime. (Shams is Hazara). 


One of our side projects is a website called Hazara Hope, which features profiles of Hazaras, mostly residing in Indonesia, who have been vetted as refugees by the UN, and have been waiting – over a decade, in some cases – to be resettled in a new country.


We’ve now brought over three hundred Hazaras and other refugees to Canada in the last few years, and they’ve settled in towns and cities across the country. But for every happy airport arrival, there is the survivor’s guilt of all the friends left behind, people who are still waiting for their opportunity for a new life.


All refugees, regardless of background, have something to offer this country, and to those ordinary Canadians who make the effort to bring them here.


They have so much to offer. They just need a chance.