Victor Lal grew up in a home in which one thing was unequivocally clear – if you have the means to help someone, you are responsible for doing just that.
Lal’s parents came to Canada as Polish refugees, escaping a Communist regime in the 1980s. Even their love story is tied to their refugee journey, said the Ivey Business School student. His mother needed help translating a visa application and sought assistance from a fellow asylum seeker – a man she would later marry. With the help of a church group’s sponsorship, the couple ultimately came to Picton, Ont.
“Without this group, my parents wouldn’t have been able to come to Canada. Growing up, they always made it very clear to me that we had a responsibility to help others who were in this situation. And I’ve always wanted to do something specifically to help Syrian refugees, just because the crisis was the most prominent at the time I was in high school and entering university,” Lal said.
Last year, as the founder of Canadians for Syria, a Western student group, Lal completed a 2,600- kilometre bike ride from Toronto to St. John’s, raising $30,000 to assist a family of five, expected to arrive in Ontario this month. This year, he hopes to raise twice that amount as he prepares to swim across Lake Ontario in a fundraising effort to sponsor two Syrian families.
Lal plans to dive in on Aug. 25 for a 52-kilometre swim from Niagara-On-The-Lake to Toronto, a feat he estimates will take roughly 20 hours to complete.
“There was the underlying problem of wanting to do something, but knowing the problem was far away and not understanding what I, as one person, could do,” he said.
The idea for a Ride for Refugees came to him in a second-year Political Science class. Lal wanted to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis, but more than that, he wanted to mobilize a group to come together and sponsor refugees to come to Canada. Pooling resources, time, money and energy, he wanted to build a community that “little by little, could help and give a family what they need,” he explained.
“As soon as I finished the ride, we started getting more requests from other Syrian refugees. It became clear we needed to do something more and I wanted to do something a bit more crazy than the bike ride – which turned out to be the swim, with the intent of raising $60,000 and trying to bring over as many refugees as possible with that,” Lal noted.
He was in the pool the day after he finished the bike ride and has trained with a Western swim coach, alternating time between the pool and open-water swims. Regulations prevent him from wearing a wet suit and Lal is preparing to navigate waters that could be as cool as 15 degrees Celsius. He has been putting in time in the frigid waters of Lake Ontario since April, training his body “to be on the verge of shutting down.” He has intentionally gained 30 pounds to help his body stay warm during the swim.
“Half of the training is physical, developing a good technique and spending time in cold water, training. But a good chunk of it is mental,” Lal said.
“Even if you get your body to a certain baseline, it’s about mentally being in the space of, ‘This is going to be a terrible 20 hours, and I know that there is only one option this will end with, and that is me finishing.’ It’s making sure you understand there will be some ugly moments when you’re in the middle of Lake Ontario, and it’s pitch black, and you’re asking yourself, ‘What am I doing here?’ But mentally, you’re committed to this.”
Last summer, Canadians for Syria sponsored the Beshmaf family, a group of five Syrian refugees from the city of Aleppo.
It’s about community sponsorship, Lal said, and anyone who would like to help can do so, regardless of the amount they are able to donate. All of the funds go directly to sponsored refugees. Donors can stay connected and will be updated on the application status of the family, their arrival in Canada, and the beginnings of their new life as Canadians.
Canadians for Syria has raised nearly $16,000 for the swim. To sponsor a kilometre or to donate to Lal’s swim, visit the Canadians for Syria website.