Newcomer Sarkis Jenanian, 29, spent his first morning in Canada in the lobby of a Toronto airport hotel – exhausted but unable to rest in his room upstairs.
“I’m not sleeping because I’m happy,” he said, standing next to a decorated Christmas tree where Syrian refugees posed for pictures.
“I’m proud of the Canadian government and the Armenian Church because we didn’t have another chance,” he added.
A hotel visitor – unrelated to the group of Syrian arrivals – stopped and shook Mr. Jenanian’s hand and welcomed him to Canada.
Mr. Jenanian and his mother arrived as part of the first official Canadian government flight carrying Syrian refugees that touched down at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in the middle of the night.
By the time the newcomers were brought to the hotel it was after 4 a.m. The new arrivals are waiting to be reunited with their Canadian family members who are also their sponsors.
The metal tube factory worker from Aleppo became one of the more the four million Syrians who scrambled for safety to neighbouring countries as their country descended in to chaos.
He and his mother – both belonging to Syria’s minority Christian Armenian community – fled to Lebanon as the bombings and constant fighting between the Syrian government and rebel groups made it impossible to stay.
“You will either die or you have to go away, but I have my chance now,” he said.
Almost half of the 164 Syrian refugees brought to Canada on the first flight are sponsored by various Armenian-Canadian groups.
Mr. Jenanian’s uncle in St. Catharines, Ont. sponsored him and his mother, and was expected to come to the hotel to be united with his family relations later Friday morning.
Other similar reunions were expected throughout the day – as the newcomers prepare for their new lives in Canada.
“We are really touching history. It’s not something you’re reading in a book. We’re touching history, witnessing it in front of our eyes,” said Rita Odjaghian of Toronto-based Armenian Family Support Services. The group has sponsored a 46-year-old man and his 55-year-old sister. During a July information session at the Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Markham, Ont., the group became aware of the individuals when their sister, who lives in Mississauga, said she wanted to bring them to safety in Canada.
At the hotel, Syrian newcomers holding little children gathered for a buffet breakfast while Arabic language translators helped answer questions. Many Syrians will be making onward journeys to other parts of Canada where their sponsoring groups are waiting to welcome them.
For Mr. Jenanian, it is a new chapter. “I will work hard to build my future here,” he said.
When the first planeload of Syrian refugees coming to Canada arrived from Beirut late Thursday night - its landing time delayed by more than two hours - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at a temporary processing centre at Toronto’s Pearson airport to greet them.
He was joined by the ministers of immigration, health and defence, as well as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Toronto Mayor John Tory and the opposition immigration critics.
Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Wynne greeted the first two families to come through processing and gave them winter coats.
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 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“You are home,” Trudeau said. “Welcome home.”
Mr. Jamkossian's wife held their daughter Madeleine, clutching a teddy bear the little girl took with a shy smile from Ms. Wynne as the politicians helped find suitable winter clothing for them.
The family — the father is a blacksmith and the mother a sales clerk — fled Syria, spent eight months in Lebanon and now they came to Canada because here, Madeleine will have many opportunities, the family said.
“We suffered a lot,” Jamkossian said. “Now, we feel as if we got out of hell and we came to paradise.”
Refugee Shadr Mardelli struggled to put the day’s experience into words.
“I can’t imagine my feelings here, I’m so happy,” he said, weary but smiling, minutes after arriving at a hotel from the airport with his wife and son. The family fled Syria for Lebanon last year.
In Canada, he said, “I’m looking for safety and beautiful future and new future.”
The Prime Minister 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, 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,” Mr. Trudeau said.
"But it's not just about receiving them tonight, it's about the hard work we're all going to do in the coming weeks, months and indeed years to ensure that everyone who passes through here tonight and in the weeks and months to come are able to build a life for themselves, for their family and also contribute fully to the continued growth of this extraordinary 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.
"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 sponsorship groups have become accustomed to waiting. But this time, it was with the rare assurance that the wait would be over soon, and that they would see their countrymen by morning.
Amira Barkho stood in the airport’s arrivals terminal on Thursday night, confused about how to find her sister, who she believed was part of the airlift. Ms. Barkho was frustrated, but above all eager to see her sister, the family’s last sibling to leave Syria – the rest live in Hamilton, like Ms. Barkho, or in Sweden.
“It’s no problem,” she said. “I can wait all the night.”
On Thursday, she said, one of her cousins was killed in a bombing in the northeastern region the family hails from.
“I don’t know what they want, those people,” she said. “They’re erasing all the minorities, all the culture. People they don’t want to stop – just killing, killing, killing.”
Earlier in the day, officials tried to discourage sponsors from coming to Toronto’s Pearson Airport. The refugees needed to have routine health checks on arrival, and were not expected to leave the airport until 1 a.m.
Apkar Mirakian, who is co-ordinating settlement for the city’s Armenian community, which has 71 people on the flight, encouraged members of his community to stay home on Thursday night and visit the new arrivals at their hotel on Friday morning to avoid disappointment.
“We’re happy that they’re coming,” an exhausted-sounding Mr. Mirakian said by phone from his home. “We’ll be relieved when we pick them up.”
It has been a long slog for many Armenians in Toronto awaiting refugees, prolonged by uncertainty and bureaucratic hiccups.
“Presently, I, personally, am very, very tired,” Mr. Mirakian said.
The military plane, containing the privately sponsored refugees, was originally slated to arrive around 9:30 p.m.
The flight was delayed for several hours because it took longer than expected to get through last-minute processing in Lebanon. The Syrians departed from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport mid-morning local time, and the aircraft then took a meandering course over Europe to allow for refuelling in Germany.
In spite of the delay and the fact that the refugees were coming through a special terminal set up for them, some people came to the airport anyway.
Gordon Teti, a paralegal student at Centennial College, was at Terminal 1 with a sign that said “Welcome” in Arabic, Farsi and the Swahili of his native Kenya. He said he was representing the suburban college and wore a polo shirt bearing the school’s insignia.
“We just wanted them to feel that Canada is welcoming and the diversity of who we are,” Mr. Teti said. “The message is clear, that Canada welcomes everyone. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter what you look like.
“The suffering that these guys have experienced, the violence in Syria, is just beyond our imagination as a country,” he added.
Sisters Alyaa and Fayhaa Hanoura, Syrians who arrived in Canada three and four years ago respectively, also came to Terminal 1 to show their support for the new arrivals.
“They are not alone,” Alyaa said. “They are our family.”
Stefania Dunlop, executive director of Ahlan Syria, (Welcome Syria), arrived at the airport on Thursday evening with 200 gift bags for the new arrivals, everything from toiletries for the adults to friendship bracelets and toys for children.
Ms. Dunlop, who has worked in refugee camps in the Middle East, said she felt compelled to do something and has assembled 230 volunteers, including translators, dentists, lawyers and teachers, as well as people willing to host dinners, or take families on outings.
“We are aiming to be this centralized hub for any settlement service that isn’t currently offered by our government and to be a resource for families that are sponsoring refugees,” she said.
These were not the first refugees from the Syrian civil war to arrive in Canada – several hundred have made it independently to this country on commercial flights, and others continued to arrive unheralded at the airport Thursday night. But the group was the first large exodus from the region to be organized by the Canadian government.
A second military plane, which will land in Montreal on Saturday, will also come from Lebanon, and will follow the same course as the one that landed in Toronto.
After that, the government-organized flights should arrive with increasing frequency. They will be primarily commercial charters and most will come direct from Jordan, including those carrying Syrians who had fled to Lebanon.
About 500 Canadian officials have been sent to the Middle East to screen refugees who want to start new lives in Canada.
The Canadians are operating in centres in Beirut and Amman, and are collectively putting the stamp on about 800 applications a day, running each family through interviews and conducting security and health checks. A third centre was opened this week in Turkey, and is also expected to process hundreds of people a day.
Immigration officials say they believe the government should have no problem meeting its stated targets of bringing 10,000 of the refugees to Canada by the end of the year and another 15,000 by the end of February.
The Syrians who arrived on Thursday, and those who will come later in the week, are being sponsored privately by groups of people in towns and cities across Canada.
About 100 were expected to settle in the Greater Toronto Area, with a handful moving on to both Hamilton and Windsor, Ont.. Eight more were expected to travel to B.C., while 20 were going to Calgary and 15 to Edmonton, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Most of those who will arrive this year will be privately sponsored. But in 2016, the mix will transition to those who are being directly sponsored by the government.
Federal cabinet ministers celebrated the pending arrival of the refugees on Thursday afternoon.
“We’ve been working on this project for several weeks now at a very rigorous pace, and we are so excited that tonight we’ll be welcoming the first plane of Syrian refugees who are arriving here in Canada to start a new life,” Health Minister Jane Philpott said. “We are upholding our international obligations to respond to the needs of people seeking refuge, and it will be a very special day.”
Although Conservative Opposition MPs said they, too, are happy to see the refugees set foot in Canada, Erin O’Toole, the party’s public safety critic, asked during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons if the government could guarantee that every one of the new arrivals has been subjected to a comprehensive security screening.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale replied that the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canadian Border Services Agency have all “indicated collectively that they were fully satisfied with the security procedures that had been put in place them.”
With reports from Elizabeth Church, Victoria Ptashnick and The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error
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