Armenian community in Canada gives a wide welcome to refugees

By Debra Black
The Star

The Armenian community of Toronto is opening its arms to Syrian refugees.

With the help of the Armenian Community Centre, a government-sanctioned sponsorship agency, community members over the past two years have filed applications to co-sponsor about 2,500 Armenian-Syrians who fled Syria because of mounting violence. Some 1,300 have already been approved, and about 300 have been welcomed this year.

According to Citizenship and Immigration’s map of approved sponsorships, as of Nov. 24, about 2,600 Syrian refugees are waiting to come to the GTA. Willowdale — where there is a concentration of people of Armenian heritage — is expected to receive about 1,079 of those. In the initial wave, sponsors from downtown Toronto will receive a further 1,326. Mississauga sponsors will get 68, Thornhill 33, North York 23, Etobicoke18, Oakville seven and Oshawa five.

Citizenship and Immigration says about 4,511 files of privately sponsored refugees outside Quebec are currently being processed.

Some 74 people have arrived since Nov. 4. But Ottawa has said it will resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees across the country by the end of February — no easy task, given the logistics of screening, processing and transporting the families here.

The exodus from Syria has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with more than 4 million Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland and seeking refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. A further 7 million Syrians have been displaced internally.

Apkar Mirakian, who is in charge of the Armenian Community Centre’s resettlement program, says applications continue to flood the office, many for friends or extended family members currently living in Jordan or Lebanon.

Besides processing applications, the centre has set up a committee to aid sponsors in finding accommodation, clothing and furniture for the new arrivals. The local Armenian private school has agreed to waive tuition for all children for their first year, said Mirakian.

The centre is also networking now to find potential jobs for refugees, to help them get on their feet as soon as possible. “We’re reaching out to Armenian businessmen,” said Mirakian. “We’ve gone to Mideastern supermarkets. Loblaws is hiring in their warehouse in Ajax.”

Just when the bulk of this wave of Syrian-Armenian refugees will arrive is uncertain, Mirakian said. Resettling them can be stressful, he acknowledged.

“It’s very tiring, but it’s rewarding. At night you go home and say you’ve done something good today.”

For Greg Ghitilian, a community sponsor of two Syrian refugee families, says that for Armenians there is a deeper meaning behind this act of humanity. “My dad and his family had been refugees in 1915 to 1920,” and they fled to Syria from Turkey (which he describes as western Armenia). “Syrians accepted us, as Christians, and the Syrians are now in the same predicament. They are in neighbouring countries, with the kids… It’s heartbreaking.”

The Maksoudlian family, who arrived from Beirut in August, and the Nersesian family, who came in September, both stayed at first with Ghitilian’s family in their Markham home. Now, they’re on their own, with visits and occasional assistance from Ghitilian and his family as they transition to a new life in Canada.

The centre’s settlement program has been successful, he believes, because so many want to “pay it forward.” Everyone wants to help out, he says, pointing to the enthusiasm of friends and neighbours who contributed furniture and clothing as he waited for the families he sponsored to arrive. He received so much he had to use part of his garage to store everything.

“You have to rely on the larger community to pull off something like this.”

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