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This Story Is For Anyone With Reservations About Bringing Syrian Refugees To Canada

My father sponsored complete strangers during WWII. He never forgot what they achieved once here.

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Colin Gravenor speaking in 1956.
Kristian Gravenor

Colin Gravenor speaking in 1956.

Colin Gravenor
Kristian Gravenor

Colin Gravenor

Glay Sperling came to Montreal from Europe after Hitler rose to power.

Once in Montreal, Sperling became an accomplished photojournalist and taught for 33 years at Dawson College, where he founded the cinema department and became a friend and mentor to many. He inspired a scholarship and even generated a catchphrase in the Urban Dictionary. (Glay Sperling: "To exceed ones expectations.")

So one minute Sperling was fearing for his life in Europe. The next he's thriving and sharing his many talents in Montreal.

How did this happen?

He was sponsored to Canada by a complete stranger — my father.

The same was true of Tony Oberleitner, another war refugee who had no ties to Canada before coming from Austria. His life was threatened after he was deemed suspicious by Hitler's regime for his work alongside cutting-edge thinker Wilhelm Reich.

Oberleitner was a tall, optimistic and delightful man who filled a room with generous laughter. His wife Eva was an equally sunny person. Both went on to achieve a bunch of good things as a Canadians, starting a solid family out west.

Neither would have been able to come to Canada had it not been for my father, Colin Gravenor, a stubborn opponent of Hitler's.

He led the Montreal section of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League from his office in the Mount Royal Hotel. In the 1940s he worked hard to help those oppressed by Nazis in any way he could, including by sponsoring strangers.

Decades later, my father was honoured in an exhibit at the Vancouver Holocaust Museum. The museum organizers told me that the efforts my father made were extremely uncommon among Canadian non-Jews at the time.

Now Canada is being asked to welcome Syrian refugees, which has left many divided on the issue. Some good people have expressed apprehensions about these newcomers to Canada.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

During the Nazi years many Canadians were also apprehensive about allowing refugees into Canada. Those opponents were many.

My father used to tell me about some local Jews in Montreal who organized a protest against the refugees. Those protesters were not necessarily bad people, but they were undoubtedly misguided and misinformed. (I've never seen press accounts or other documentation of the protest; my father described it to me on many occasions.)

Now there's a new group of people seeking refuge from their war-torn land and we are seeing the same popular hesitation.

Those who oppose welcoming the refugees are not necessarily bad people. However, Canada can and will absorb the Syrians without a hiccup.

The children of these refugees will play alongside your kids in the snow, and sit next to them on the bus discussing their homework. They will bring their wisdom, perseverance and noble survival skills to help make this country better.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

If you're a cynic like myself, there's an element of self-interest at play. Sponsor a refugee and they and their families will forever be grateful. Those my father helped would have given their left pinkies if he asked.

My father never stopped loving newcomers and their enthusiasm for Canada. He would frequently advise me to stand outside places where foreigners convene just to watch the purpose and enthusiasm they carried. In the 70s he hired many boat people from Vietnam to help in his businesses.

Here's a link to help you get involved in this latest opportunity to do the right thing.