Arts, Culture & Media

Meet the millionaire teaching Syrian refugees how to be Canadian, his way

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

jim ahmed and rola.JPG

Ahmed and Roluh admire a microwave given to them by Jim Estill (left), who helped resettle them in Guelph, Canada. They're pointing out the Danby Applicances logo; Estill runs the nearby factory and the couple works there.
Credit:

Andrea Crossan

Three months ago, Ahmed thought he'd probably soon die. 

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Then, things changed so fast, that sometimes the thought of it still stuns him. Especially when he looks at Jim Estill.

"I can't look to him, this guy," Ahmed says, sitting next to Estill, weeping. "I respect him so much. Before I come here, I thought 'Im dead. I'm dead.'"

We're not using Ahmed's last name, or that of his wife, Roluh, because they still have a son in Syria and are afraid that by speaking out they'll put him at risk. 

The couple lives in a small efficiency apartment with another son, who's 27 and has special needs. It was impossible for Ahmed and Roluh to give him the care he needed while the family fled Syria for Lebanon, and later Canada. Since arriving in Guelph, about an hour outside Toronto, he's seen doctors and is improving, Roluh says.

This family was one of 50 Estill sponored with more than a $1 million of his own money. Volunteers and local churches, synagogues and mosques helped with housing, food and English language education. Estill found Roluh and Ahmed jobs in the factory he runs, Danby Appliances.

"He's like my brother," Ahmed says of Estill, who wears a blue work shirt like anyone else at his factory.

In a different life, and a different world, the two men could have been business associates. Estill was one of the founding board members of the smartphone company BlackBerry. He started and sold many other big companies, retired young, and then went on to run Danby Appliances. Estill has access to government information about all the refugees he's helped, and says Ahmed owned the equivalent of a Saks Fifth Avenue in Syria. 

"He's just a business guy like me," Estill says. 

But circumstances in the world have made Estill the one who ended up feeling like he was playing God with other people's lives. He started his effort to bring Syrian families to Canada in 2015. Ever since, people have been emailing him with desperate pleas for help. Before US President Donald Trump took office, Estill was getting a few dozen such notes every day. After Trump took office, he says the emailed pleas for help multiplied.

"It's been a massive increase. A huge increase. I've had a lot of requests, but now i'm getting probably five times as many," Estill says, adding, "I've had approaches from people in the States who want to come here."

Related: Refugees are freezing to flee the US for Canada

Estill says they tell him they're from one of the seven countries banned by Trump from entering the US. They've applied for protected status in America but think they'll probably be deported under Trump's policies.

Trump's original ban has been blocked by a federal court decision, but a new executive order on immigration is expected this week.

"They're fearful that they're not going to have a place to stay," says Estill, who tries to choose people to help based on who he thinks will contribute to Canada's economy and social fabric — mostly nuclear families, preferably with grandparents who'll take care of kids while parents work.

"I don't tend to sponsor single men," he says. "I don't tend to sponsor single mothers."

Some people who arrive are disappointed in the blue-collar factory jobs Estill wants them to work. He's also had to deal with mixed reaction among the Canadian public.

"I get huge support from most people, but once in a while I get mail from some people who say I'm bringing in terrorists and I'm a reprehensible individual," he says.

Roluh and Ahmed are anxious to show how much they want to be Canadian. Ahmed says he's willing to pick up trash in his spare time to gain his new neighbors' trust. 

"I want the Canadian people to see us as good people, not bad people," he says. "I'm ready to clean the street for this country."

They want Canadians to know how grateful they are. Even if living in Guelph does come with a lot of rules imposed by Estill. His strictness is a running joke between them. 

"Jim, he said no TV," Roluh says. "I was mad for that first minute."

Estill thinks watching TV is generally a waste of time. 

"I don’t have a television," he says. "I don’t believe in television. But I have come around; it’s not a bad way to learn English. So I may be changing my mind.”

Estill insists Ahmed and Roluh always speak English. When he sees Syrians self-segregating at the factory cafeteria, he pushes them to sit with Canadians. And Estill doesn't like smoking. Ahmed had to quit.

"In Canada smoking's not healthy," Estill laughs, delivering one of his favorite jokes, then mentioning another semi-rule: "I let them eat meat. But meat’s not healthy; it’s not good for the world. We all know that."

Ahmed laughs along with the joke, then gets serious. If following these rules is what it takes to be Canadian, Ahmed says, he and his family are more than willing to change.