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More than talking

Dean Glen A. Jones speaks with The Varsity about Syrian refugee students
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Julien Balbontin/THE VARSITY
Julien Balbontin/THE VARSITY

The growing refugee crisis in Syria presents a challenge in how to best support students whose lives have been disrupted by the tragedy. To shed some light on the response of the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) and University of Toronto, The Varsity sat down with OISE dean Glen A. Jones to talk about the existing efforts aimed at helping Syrian students and their families.

A snapshot of the crisis

In March 2011, disillusionment with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sparked a cycle of street protests and violent attempts to stifle the disputes. Sixteen months later, the Syrian Arab Republic was officially declared in a state of civil war by Red Cross, marking the beginning of one of the largest humanitarian crises in the last few decades.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it is estimated that by mid-2014, 10.8 million of Syria’s population of 22 million was affected by the conflict. These numbers are only expected to grow in the coming months.


While the growing need for refugee assistance has emerged, the question of how many refugees should be allowed to enter Canada has become highly contentious. When asked if a regulatory system should be put in place, Jones explained that there has to be “some element of control” but that he wholeheartedly agrees with the notion of accepting more refugees.

“This is a country of immigrants”, he said, “a country of refugees in some respects and so, I think the notion of Canadians feeling a tremendous sympathy when they see pictures on the television, of people in tremendous distress, is kind of a natural Canadian phenomenon. So, yes, I think we should do what we can do.”

“This is a country of immigrants.”

“In terms of bringing it in to this context, OISE has a very strong tradition of, I guess, interest in social justice, and this is a place where there is a lot of advocacy of social issues that takes place in this building, a lot of community connections, and soon after the television spots began to materialize, people, I think, began to realize how serious the situation really was, began to ask us what is it that we can do and what’s going on,” Jones said.

Although Jones stresseed the important intellectual contribution OISE has made so far to the conversation, he admits that when it comes to realistic efforts, U of T remains a more practical avenue.

“There are all kinds of places where people can give their money, so the notion is to simply point people towards some initiatives that seem to be positive and that seem to fit in with what the community is interested in.”

Although Jones says that OISE “carefully said that we are not trying to tell people what to do,”  he suggests that the efforts U of T president Meric Gertler recently announced are a good place to start.


Created in 1999, The University of Toronto Scholars At Risk Program is designed to provide humanitarian assistance for a small number of distinguished academics and outstanding students who have been the victims of violence and repression due to territorial conflicts or ideological differences.

To this end, the program’s goal this year is to fundraise $1 million to support 100 new bursaries of $10,000 each, which will be awarded over the next 10 years. As an incentive, the U of T will match  all donations up to $500,000.

Although this might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, Jones explains that “there are limits to what we can do” and that “the notion to the Scholars at Risk program is really about trying to provide special support for students and others so that they can… have… additional financial support to access the university.”

According to the dean, the matching funds will come from the university’s undesignated gifts, which come from people giving the university money to be used towards annual fund raising activities or other endeavours.

In terms of the recipients themselves, the students would be chosen through a process that takes their status as at-risk students and their academic credentials into account.

Partnership with the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge

Ryerson University has taken the initiative to support the goals of Lifeline Syria, a citizen-led organization that is coordinating the sponsorship of 1,000 Syrian refugees over two years in the GTA. It has been extended to include 25 new Syrian refugee families (or roughly 100 refugees). So far, U of T, York University, and OCAD University have all agreed to the partnership.

“The initiative Ryerson has sponsored is about finding ways of sponsoring families and bringing people here,” said Jones.

The refugees will be supported by 25 teams of volunteers who have offered to support the families for up to one year at an estimated cost of $27,000. Eleven Ryerson leaders have personally pledged more than $5,000+ and a year of their time to ensure the successful resettlement of a single Syrian family.