TORONTO – The first planeload of Syrian refugees who landed in Toronto late Thursday night were given new winter coats and a big welcome from senior political officials as they begin the next journey of their lives in a new country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on hand at the airport to greet the refugees as they disembarked the plane at Pearson International Airport at the Infield Terminal just before midnight, which is not open to the public for security reasons.
The first family was a couple with their 16-month-old girl and the second was a man and woman with their three daughters, two of whom are twins. Both families said they were happy to be here.
“We really would like to thank you for all this hospitality and the warm welcome and all the staff – we felt ourselves at home and we felt ourselves highly respected,” Kevork Jamkossian told Trudeau.
“You are home,” the prime minister said. “Welcome home.”
The prime minister, who was joined by the ministers of immigration, health and defence, Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the opposition immigration critics, thanked the staff and volunteers helping to process and welcome the 163 refugees ahead of the arrival of the military aircraft.
“This is a wonderful night,” Trudeau said. “We get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada’s all about but we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinary difficult situations.”
All of the Syrians on board are being sponsored by private groups, many of whom had filed the paperwork months ago in order to bring in some of the estimated 4.3 million Syrians displaced by the ongoing civil war in that country.
“Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada, with social insurance numbers, with health cards, and with an opportunity to become full Canadians,” Trudeau continued.
“This is something that we are able to do in this country because we define a Canadian not by a skin colour or a language or a religion or a background, but by a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes and dreams that not just Canadians but people around the world share.”
The 160 Canadian newcomers boarded a military plane in Beirut, Lebanon earlier in the day, before stopping in Germany to refuel and switch crews.
Once they are processed, the refugees will disperse across the country. Most will stay in Ontario, but eight will head all the way across the country to British Columbia and another 35 to Alberta.
This marks the first government aircraft carrying refugees as the government works to fulfil a pledge of bringing in 25,000 refugees by the end of February.
A second plane is expected to land in Montreal on Saturday. Canada will be welcoming 10,000 refugees by the end of the year and another 15,000 by the end of February for a total of 25,000 Syrian refugees.
Privately sponsored refugees have already started arriving. More than 400 refugees have already arrived on commercial flights since the Liberals took office on Nov. 4.
Canadians eager to show their support for the newcomers weren’t deterred by the fact that they couldn’t do so face to face.
A handful of people gathered at the international arrivals gate at Pearson bearing signs and gifts.
Stefania Dunlop and Lubna Altaher dropped off dozens of bags brimming with snacks and plush toys for the children, as well as hats and mittens for the adults. The pair said they had made arrangements with airport security to have the items -and several hundreds more bags – brought to the designated terminal where the government flight landed.
With files from The Canadian Press