Toronto’s Armenian community pulls together to help resettle refugees

A sunlit building with marble floors in northern Toronto is the headquarters for a quiet but massive resettlement effort that’s stretching the limits of the city’s small Armenian community.

Willowdale, a suburb tucked just north of Highway 401, is the target destination for almost as many Syrian refugees as Toronto’s core. And almost all the 1,127 refugees going to Willowdale, according to federal documents, are attached to a single address: the Armenian Community Centre.

With no public funding, its members are privately sponsoring more than a tenth of the refugees expected in the coming weeks, opening their spare rooms to usher fellow Armenians to safety and – almost as important – familiarity.

Other people, especially those who haven’t lived as a minority, might be happy to settle wherever fate takes them. But when Armenians migrate, they tend to do it purposely and en masse, said Garen Keuhnelian, whose brother-in-law’s family arrived in Canada on Monday.

“They want to keep the Armenians together,” Mr. Keuhnelian said. “Otherwise they would be scattered in other places and they would be lost.”

The private sponsorships allow the community members to name specific Armenian families or persons, who then file their part of the refugee-resettlement application from Lebanon or Jordan, where the Christian minority community has been living since fleeing Syria.

Toronto’s established Armenian community is about 10,000 families strong and mostly middle class. The new arrivals could add up to much more than 1,127, said Apkar Mirakian, who is directing the settlement project for the community centre.

There are already more than 1,300 approved sponsorship applications, he said. About 350 people have already arrived, with 1,000 expected, and applications are still pouring in for about 80 people a day. The pace of arrivals has picked up to the point that staff are sometimes only told in the morning that a family will arrive at the airport at night.

Canada’s eased refugee rules have made the country an easy choice for many Armenians in the Middle East. Other than Armenia itself, Canada is the only place where they can easily move right now and also integrate into an existing cultural community, Mr. Mirakian said.

“The Armenians in a refugee situation in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, this is where they’re looking,” he said.

All newly arrived children will begin school with free tuition at the private Armenian school attached to the community centre, and when the school inevitably overflows, the community centre will start converting its rooms into classrooms, Mr. Mirakian said. “We are exhausting the resources of the community.”

The federal government has told sponsors it costs about $25,000 to sponsor a family for a year. But the Armenian Community Centre asks for only a $100 application fee, trusting the sponsors to sort things out, whether that means offering their own home or lining up a job.

“Responsibility falls on the community if anything goes wrong in that first year,” said Shahen Mirakian, Apkar Mirakian’s son. “We take that with eyes open, very willingly.”

On Tuesday afternoon, two new families arrived in Willowdale with their sponsors, looking around the community centre a day after landing at Pearson International Airport.

Nanor Kojaoghlanian, a 30-year-old mother of two, flew from Lebanon and will be living at first in Brampton, Ont., with her husband’s second cousin, who grew up in Iraq and had met her husband only a few times. They had contacted him and he quickly agreed to help.

Very few of the privately sponsored Armenians are coming from refugees camps. Many Armenians associated camps with the Turkish genocide of their people a century ago, and friends and family will try hard to find them other housing, said the elder Mr. Mirakian.

However, in Lebanon they were unable to work. Ms. Kojaoghlanian, once an English teacher, hopes to teach again in Canada. “It was a dream to come here,” she said.

Many Armenians work as goldsmiths, silversmiths, tool and die makers and car mechanics, said Apkar Mirakian. Toronto’s Armenian business owners have been working together to place people in their fields and calling around when they can’t. Two local Middle Eastern supermarkets have given jobs to Armenians, as has a Loblaws warehouse east of Toronto.

In Montreal, 700 or 800 Armenian Syrians have already arrived, though the flow has slowed, said Shahen Mirakian. The extra students there put a strain on the Armenian school. In Toronto, housing will be one of the biggest hurdles, he said. There’s a short supply to begin with, and some landlords have been demanding six months’ rent up front.

“Maybe we’ll have a huge community pop up in Mississauga or Brampton or wherever they can afford housing,” he said.

Armen Malkounian, a goldsmith, arrived Monday with his wife, Noushig, their five-year-old daughter, and his mother. They will move in with his sister, her husband and their two children – the Keunhelians – in Richmond Hill.

The Keunhelians have already filed another application to bring more family, but they still have room. The house has four bedrooms and a basement, Mr. Keunhelian said.

Beyond family, Mr. Malkounian hastened to add, he also has “lots of friends” in Canada whom he once knew in Syria. “All Armenians are my friends,” he said, laughing.

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