How Aylan Kurdi changed Canada

Story highlights

  • Participants in a public forum in Ottawa last month discussed ways to help Syrian refugees come to Canada
  • "I wish we were doing a lot more," says a member of Ottawa's Mennonite Church, which is sponsoring refugees
  • Aylan Kurdi, his mother and brother died while family in Canada tried to secure asylum for them there

Ottawa (CNN)Clutching pages of information and pamphlets, Kate McNaughton is one of thousands of Canadians who says she's serious about transforming her good intentions toward refugees into extraordinary action, even if it means putting up her own money to do it.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to do it more quickly than we did in the past, with the current government's support," says McNaughton, a nurse-practitioner who along with hundreds of others made it to a public forum in Ottawa in late September on how to help Syrian refugees come to Canada.
    If there's anything that Aylan Kurdi taught Canada, it's that every minute counts -- every minute, every day, every piece of paper and bureaucratic necessity that stands between a Syrian refugee's misery and a new life in Canada.
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    "We're still waiting for more information on how to speed the process up," says McNaughton. "I think that there's going to be a lot of administrative hours spent but hopefully it will result in a good outcome."
    "My understanding of refugee crises, the history of refugees coming to Canada and generally a sense of social responsibility, that's why I came here," says Andina Van Isschot, as she armed herself with information and contacts.
    Thousands of Canadians, from every corner of the country, have flooded charities, faith groups and legal advocates with offers of support and money -- and questions of how they can best help.
    "We've got to get people together because people are coming up to all of us and saying, 'How can we help?'" says Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa and the organizer of the public forum. "They want to help, they want to sponsor a family they want to provide financial support."
    "You've seen an entire country mobilize city by city, community by community, to go and really do whatever we can to help," says Watson.

    'Sometimes it just takes one image'

    It's been more than a month since Canadians saw the image of 2-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his life ended on a Turkish beach instead of flourishing on Canadian soil as his Canadian family had dreamed. In a country singled out around the world for its generosity to both immigrants and refugees, the death of Aylan -- as well as his mother and 4-year-old brother -- as they waited to be granted asylum in Canada was a profound blow to some.
    "Oh yeah, it's a concern, for sure, I wish we were doing a lot more," says Jane Snider, a member of Ottawa's Mennonite Church, a group already sponsoring Syrian refugees and looking to sponsor more.
    "Sometimes it just takes one image, like that little girl in Vietnam," says Snider.
    Snider is referring to the image of a naked 9-year-old running for her life after her body was scorched by napalm. The photo of Kim Phuc was taken more than four decades ago during the height of the Vietnam War. Phuc eventually claimed asylum in Canada and in May she told CNN she considers the photo a "blessing" that helped bring about peace.
    Snider sees the power of the image of Aylan as an important catalyst for people who want to support bringing Syrian refugees to Canada, but she is realistic about what it takes in real terms.
    "Just having the personal support for families when they come, it takes a lot of time and effort," she says, adding that the bureaucracy and all the forms required can be daunting.
    Taking it all in is Tima Kurdi, Aylan's aunt, who was trying for months to find a way to bring her brother's family to Canada.
    Time is of the essence
    "Honestly, I'm not sure what to say. I heard from my husband and my friends that Canada will change the rules and now it will be faster and easier," Kurdi told CNN from Kurdistan, where she is currently traveling to see family.
    Amid public pressure following Aylan's death, the Canadian government announced it would take 1,000 more Syrian refugees, it would try to streamline the process and it would match, dollar for dollar, all donations raised for the Syria Emergency Relief Fund until the end of the year.
    "Yes, my nephew did change the world for politicians; they think of humanity," says Kurdi.
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    At the public forum in Ottawa, Aylan never seemed far from people's thoughts, many citing "that image" and how it moved them. Some said they hope the outpouring will help console Aylan's family that his death will not have been in vain.
    "If [Tima Kurdi] could see the outpouring of support I hope that would give her some comfort," says Michael Allen, head of the Ottawa United Way, a community-based charity trying to coordinate the city's efforts on resettling Syrian refugees.
    Mayor Watson, a veteran of fundraising, says the whole world was touched by Aylan's tragedy and he doesn't want to waste any of that sentiment.
    "The attention span of everyone tends to wane, and unless we sort of move quickly to do our best to get people involved and engaged and seek their financial support, it will be a missed opportunity," says Watson.