The New Underground Railroad

I’ve written previously about a world class innovation by Canadian citizens that inspired a new approach to refugee sponsorship. This social innovation emerged in the 1970’s because the Canadian government couldn’t keep pace with the groundswell of Canadians who wanted to help Vietnamese boat people settle in Canada. The government responded by creating a new category of private refugee sponsorship although it would be better to describe it as citizen sponsorship. Without the involvement of these community groups, Canada would not have met and exceeded its 2016 targets for Syrian refugees.

Now the Government of Canada wants to share this innovation with the rest of the world. It has just launched the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative along with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in order to provide training and advice to countries interested in replicating the Canadian model.

Meanwhile, a whole network of on-the-ground volunteers is confronting the reality that more and more refugees are being forced to stay in camps. Folks are donating their time, doing their own fundraising and using social media to link up and respond to issues not only in the welcoming countries but also in the refugee camps. In many situations, these groups are more agile and responsive than governments or large NGO’s. The network of citizen groups in Canada is linked to similar groups around the world.  Someone described the effectiveness of this networking as constituting the new underground railroad. (Thanks LW)

One group in the network is Canada Caring which started when a group of women from North Vancouver got together for coffee to discuss how to respond to the devastating image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. They wanted to do more than fundraise or collect donations. They and eventually many others travelled to Greece and Turkey where they met citizen volunteers like themselves. And where they discovered one glaring unmet need – support for new mothers and their babies. Every day babies are born in refugee camps without the basic necessities for a healthy start in life. So, doing what all good social innovators do, they borrowed a good idea from the past –  the Finnish baby box. And they customized the box to meet the needs of moms and babies in refugee camps. That means tthe box includes a mattress, sheets and a blanket because when the box is empty it serves as a baby bed. Clever isn’t it? Must be because so many mothers are involved in Canada Caring.

Incidentally, the cost to prepare and deliver each Baby Box is $100.00. All donations go directly to the Baby Boxes. There are no administrative costs and volunteers donate their time and cover their own travel costs and expenses.

The folks at Canada Cares describe themselves as, “just people who care.” These collective heroes are just the kind of people to inspire the government to take on another Global Refugee Initiative, Baby Boxes.


If history is, as I believe, a feast, the savour comes from its people. (Margaret MacMillan)

Here’s a song inspired by the original Underground Railroad, “Roll On” by Khari Wendell McClelland. Purchase.


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