“I try to do better every day.”
By Lauren La Rose
Meet the homegrown entrepreneur giving hundreds of refugees a fresh start in Canada.
“Do the right thing” is much more to Jim Estill than his appliance company’s corporate tagline: it’s a personal motto that has guided the longtime Canadian entrepreneur and helped forever change the lives of dozens of refugee families in the process.
In 2015, Estill saw stories and images from the Middle East and war-ravaged Syria that left him heartbroken—and spurred him to act.
The president and CEO of Danby Appliances privately sponsored 58 refugee families who resettled in his hometown of Guelph, Ont. Teams of volunteers were enlisted to help newcomers with the essentials needed to adjust and acclimate to life in a new city and country.
“We have checklists of: ‘get an apartment, get a townhouse … set up a bank account, register the kids in school, register the adults in English as a Second Language (ESL), take them in for ESL testing, get bus passes … get a library card,” said Estill.
“We do score-carding every couple of weeks to see how they’re doing … what are the things they need to help them adjust.”
Estill has now sponsored a total of 87 families for resettlement—and counting.
“This is a continued humanitarian crisis,” said Estill. “I have to do something. You just can’t not do something.”
His desire to “do something” extends beyond providing a pathway to resettlement, including laying the groundwork for longer-term independence through employment.
With the “Ease Into Canada” program, Estill offers refugees jobs at Danby for 90 days and ESL training, with the potential to stay on with the company for the longer term.
“Mostly what you’re trying to do is get people launched and get them started. And if they get used to working here for 90 days, they learn some of the Canadian cultural things around work that make it easier for them to get a job someplace else.”
Estill’s passion for supporting entrepreneurs played a pivotal role in assisting one of the Syrian refugee families he helped resettle as they pursued small business ownership.
Ahmad Abed and his family had run a successful clothing business in Syria before the outbreak of the civil war. With the opening of Our Sock Shoppe in Guelph in the fall of 2017, he was able to move into retail with his wife Roulah and sons Tarek and Eyad. Estill was also able to speak with the mall landlord to negotiate a flexible lease for the new owners.
“He told me: ‘You were a businessman before. Don’t worry here. I’m going to support you,’” Abed said of Estill.
“He gives you an idea, gives you advice. … He’s a very good guy.”
“Of course it feels great to see people that are launched and have embraced a new home and they will contribute to Canadian society for decades to come,” said Estill.
Estill credited the volunteers and wider Guelph community, including business leaders and members of local mosques, temples, churches and synagogues for creating a welcoming environment for refugees. Guelph is one of 10 Canadian communities that has signed UNHCR’s Cities #WithRefugees pledge.
Estill said one of the biggest lessons from helping with the first transitions was how challenging it can be to learn English, and the need to create opportunities to socialize and engage beyond the classroom, like pot luck lunches.
“You will learn also by watching English television, by speaking English to people in English tea circles,” he said. “It tends to be that the best English speaker of the family becomes a better English speaker because they become the spokesperson for the family. And you need to draw everybody out, even the ones that are shyer.”
In March 2019, Estill received the country’s highest civilian honour when he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the Guelph and Waterloo technology communities and for his philanthropic efforts benefiting refugees.
“Outside of the building where it says: ‘Do the right thing,’ that’s the Danby tagline. … And it’s my personal motto,” said Estill.
“I’m certainly not perfect, but I try to do better every day.”