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Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge mobilizes community's desire for action

by Wendy Cukier Vice-President Research and Innovation Ryerson University, executive lead of Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge and founder of the Diversity Institute

As Canada’s first Ashoka Changemaker campus and a RECODE member, Ryerson and its faculty, staff and students are continually building a culture of innovation. So it’s no surprise that Ryerson sprang into action with an innovative response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

I was part of the newly formed citizens’ group Lifeline Syria, chaired by my colleague Ratna Omidvar, which launched June 17, 2015 with the objective of privately sponsoring 1,000 Syrian refugees in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Just one month later, we responded to a call to action by Ryerson’s president, Sheldon Levy, and formed the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge (RULSC) with the goal of mobilizing the Ryerson community to privately sponsor 10 Syrian refugee families or 40 Syrian refugees. The response was tremendous, with more than 300 students volunteering to help support resettlement. In September, we more than doubled our goal to 25 Syrian families or 100 Syrian refugees. As momentum grew, presidents of the other GTA universities, including OCAD University, the University of Toronto and York University decided to join us. Our new goal expanded to privately sponsoring 75 Syrian refugee families, or 300 people. This project has taken us from spectators of the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War and made us into changemakers.

First and foremost, a shared vision and sense of urgency led our staff, faculty, students and community partners to move quickly. As social entrepreneurs, we focused on the goals without waiting for all the resources to be aligned. We drew on lean startup principles – build, assess, learn, iterate – making it up as we went along. Core to our efforts was a simple tech-enabled platform that made it easy to act. Like other innovations in the sharing economy, it brought together people with money, people with skills, people with time, and people with other resources to meet a pressing need. In just six months, we have raised almost $3 million, created more than 75 sponsorship groups to support 300 refugees, and we continue to grow. With more than 1,000 volunteers, the outpouring of support and new initiatives are a true testament to the potential of the post-secondary sector to deliver social and economic development by turning ideas into action.

The project showcases our social innovation capacity and our commitment to finding opportunities for students across disciplines to become changemakers. From the initial fundraising groups to the settlement support groups that are drawing on capacity from students in nursing for health issues, finance students for assistance in setting up banking and translation students for assistance in basic language skills, the resources we have across disciplines are many. RUSLC touches all our social innovation themes: poverty alleviation and development; education; health; human rights, diversity and inclusion; violence prevention and peace building; sustainability; and capacity building.
Now that refugee families are starting to arrive, our skills and job training available to newly arrived Syrian-Canadians will help them move quickly into jobs and become contributing members of society and expand Canada’s economic development capacity.
Ryerson’s growing reputation in social innovation and changemaking has helped to mobilize the community’s desire for action and transform it into real-world solutions. But the efforts and good will of our communities and the willingness of OCAD University, York University and the University of Toronto—as well as colleges and universities across the country—to join in has helped create a powerful platform, harnessing the power of individuals working together to drive change.
To learn more about Ryerson University’s Lifeline Syria Challenge, visit

Feb 9, 2016 | Tags: , , ,