Canadian Armenian community maintains support for Syrian refugees



By Robin Levinson King
The Star

By the time 10,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the country, Canadians will have fine-tuned their welcome act into a national ritual.

Tuesday was expected to be the day that the 10,000th Syrian refugee arrives in Canada. Two planes carrying 465 refugees were scheduled to arrive at Toronto Pearson International Airport sometime Tuesday, although it’s not known when they will land. Pearson reported some flight cancellations and delays due to snowy weather conditions earlier in the day.

A plane carrying 155 was also bound for Montreal.

When they land, hundreds of volunteers and aid workers will have already arranged shelter, food and clothing for their first night in Canada. Most refugees who land in Toronto will stay at a hotel such as the Toronto Plaza Hotel in North York, where they will find a hot meal and even winter coats.

From there, many will be picked up by volunteer private sponsors who have helped set them up with an apartment and guarantee their financial security for at least one year.

About half of the refugees who have arrived so far have been privately sponsored by groups such as the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto. Since Dec. 10, when the first plane arrived, the centre has accepted more than 700 refugees, says one of the refugee sponsorship organizers, Apkar Mirakian.

It was during that first arrival, Mirakian said, that the refugees started what became a kind of welcome tradition. Instead of bee-lining for the community centre, where they would meet their sponsor family, they headed straight to the adjacent church.

“They wanted to go to the church, because they had to thank God and Canada. God because he gave them an opportunity for living now, and Canada because it gave them an opportunity to live in Canada,” Mirakian said.

Mirakian said that volunteers have been doing everything to make sure the Syrian’s transition to Canadian life is as smooth as possible, but that there are no guarantees.

“I hope there won’t be any regrets, when they don’t find a job or they come into difficulty. We’re trying to keep them — nobody falls through the wire mesh, we’re trying to hold them all together,” Mirakian said.

The biggest obstacles facing refugees right now are finding shelter and work.

“The rest will fall into place, when they’re working and have a place to live.”

Right now, most refugees are spending their first night in Canada at a hotel near the airport. But when vacancies run out — possibly as early as next week — refugees will be headed to Canadian Forces Bases Valcartier, Kingston and Borden.

Space is available for 6,000 people at various bases and facilities throughout Ontario and Quebec, with an additional 7,000 spots also in reserve if needed, the Forces say on their website.

The Red Cross is working with the government to prepare the bases in advance. Chiran Livera, a spokesperson for the organization, said the Red Cross Canada doesn’t expect any refugees to arrive at the military in the next few days, but that they are prepared to welcome them as soon as they are needed.

“We’ve been on the bases for the last couple of weeks now,” Livera said. “We’re ready to go.”

It might not be ideal — escaping war-torn Syria only to spend your first few nights on a military base. But Livera said the facility is well equipped and provides a lot of services, such as private rooms, recreational facilities and internet access.

“In that sense it’s like a little town,” he said. “For sure there will be soldiers there doing their regular work that they normally do, but I think everyone is there to support the refugees and they will receive a very hospitable welcome.”

Approximately 70 Canadian Armed Forces members have returned from Jordan and Lebanon, where they were part of a broader government effort to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of next month.

“All it takes is seeing one little one the same age as my daughter — smiling because they are going to Canada,” said Maj. Drew Willis, who was among 68 soldiers who arrived to waiting family members early Tuesday at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick.

About 150 soldiers remain overseas helping process applications and conduct medical tests on the thousands of Syrians who are still passing through the screening process.

Mirakian, who is of Armenian origin, said that when he immigrated to Canada in 1967 he was overwhelmed by the help that Canadians gave him, and he wants to repay the favour.

“That’s why I want to help, that’s why I’m here. Because I’m a Canadian of Armenian origin and Canada has always taught me to be a different man than the rest of the world,” he said.

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