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Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says he is proud of Canada’s effort to help resettle a contingent of “White Helmet” emergency volunteers from Syria after it became clear their lives were being threatened by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies.

The mission to evacuate them from their war-torn country was tough, Hussen said in an interview, but Canada felt compelled to help the members of the civil-defence group after their efforts to save civilians being swept up in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

“It was a tough mission, it was a tough ask, but we delivered because we felt that White Helmets had done an exceptional service for humanity and we needed to be there to help them in their time of need,” Hussen told The Canadian Press this week.

The group of over 3,900 volunteers who helped rescue people after bombings say they are politically neutral. Assad and his backers have engaged in smear campaigns to discredit them, accusing them of being undercover terrorists or agents of foreign powers.

Canada, however, views them as advocates who “performed an amazing and brave service on behalf of humanity in the civil war in Syria,” Hussen said.

“They not only helped rescue people who were caught in the conflict, they also collected evidence of war crimes, and that is why they were threatened directly by the Assad regime,” he said. “Canada was called upon by the international community directly to respond. It wasn’t just us, it was a collection of countries ... and we responded immediately.”

Canada’s involvement began in early July, when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland attended the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, according to a senior government official who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity. Freeland, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt all expressed their shared concern about the danger facing the White Helmets following a deadly Syrian government offensive in mid-June, which unfolded with Russian support.

The evacuation eventually saw 422 White Helmets and their families moved from Syria into Jordan, although others were reportedly unable to escape the expanding reach of the Assad and allied forces.

The volunteers are being screened and resettled in numerous countries, including France, Argentina, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Details of exactly how many people are being brought to Canada and where they are being settled are not being shared for security reasons, Hussen’s department said. Hussen said those who have arrived so far are quietly making new lives in Canada.

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