Canada welcomes in first group of planned 25,000 Syrian refugees

The greeting given to the military flight carrying 163 refugees stands in stark contrast to the United States: Canada’s far more populous southern neighbour plans to take in just 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, and even that is provoking opposition.

Syrian refugees are presented with a child's winter jacket by Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, (L) on their arrival from Beirut at the Toronto Pearson international airport in Mississauga on December 11, 2015. Mark Blinch/Reuters
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TORONTO // The first Canadian government plane carrying Syrian refugees arrived in Toronto, where it was greeted by prime minister Justin Trudeau.

The leader is pushing forward with his pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of February.

The welcome given to the military flight carrying 163 refugees stood in stark contrast to the United States: Canada’s far more populous southern neighbour plans to take in just 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, and even that is provoking opposition.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump caused worldwide uproar with a proposal to temporarily block Muslims from entering the US.

The flight from Jordan arrived in Toronto on Thursday. A second government plane carrying refugees will land in Montreal today.

Mr Trudeau greeted some of the families to come through processing. The first family was Kevork Jamkossian, a gynecologist from Aleppo, his wife Georgina Zires, a lab technician, and their 16-month-old daughter Madeleine.

“We really would like to thank you for all this hospitality and the warm welcome,” Mr Jamkossian told Mr Trudeau through an interpreter. “We felt ourselves at home.”

“You are home. Welcome home,” Mr Trudeau responded.

“We suffered a lot. Now, we feel as if we got out of hell and we came to paradise,” Mr Jamkossian said later.

Families were given teddy bears and winter clothing. Mr Trudeau had earlier thanked staff and volunteers who were processing the refugees.

“This is a wonderful night, where we get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada is all about, we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations,” the prime minister said.

All 10 of Canada’s provincial premiers support taking in the refugees and members of the opposition, including the Conservative party, attended the welcoming late on Thursday. Mr Trudeau was also joined by the country’s ministers of immigration, health and defence, as well as Ontario’s premier and Toronto’s mayor.

In the US, several Republican governors have tried to stop the arrival of Syrian refugees in their states in the wake of deadly extremist attacks in Paris and California.

Greg Keoushkerian, 26, waited at the airport for his best friend, whom he sponsored. Mr Keoushkerian, a Syrian refugee of Armenian descent, said he and his family have been in Canada for 10 months and did not apply for asylum in the US.

“Canada has been so welcoming. The US doesn’t seem like that. People here respect each other here. It’s so multicultural,” he said.

“All my friends are asking about Canada now and how they can come here. In two weeks there will be another flight with some of my other friends.”

Canadians eager to show their support for the newcomers were not deterred by the fact that they could not do so face-to-face as the refugees were processed in a secure area. A handful of people gathered at the international arrivals gate at Pearson airport bearing signs and gifts.

Andrew Harris, 51, said he wanted to counter the fearful messaging about Muslims that has circulated since the Paris attacks.

He held up a large yellow sign that read “Welcome to Canada,” and said that even if the arriving refugees do not see it, the positive words will not go unnoticed.

About 800 refugees destined for Canada are being screened by security and health officers each day in Lebanon and Jordan.

Of the 163 people who arrived on Thursday, 116 will head to homes in the Toronto area. The others are sponsored by Canadians in another part of Ontario as well as British Columbia and Alberta.

Canada’s commitment reflectd the change in government after October’s election. The former Conservative government had declined to resettle more Syrian refugees, despite the haunting image of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The child had relatives in Canada, and the refugee crisis became a major campaign issue.

“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,” Mr Trudeau said.

“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.”

Canada has long prided itself on opening its doors to asylum-seekers. In times of crisis in decades past, Canada resettled refugees quickly and in large numbers. It airlifted more than 5,000 people from Kosovo in the late 1990s, more than 5,000 from Uganda in 1972 and resettled 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-1980. More than 1.2 million refugees have arrived in Canada since the Second World War.

* Associated Press