TORONTO Soon after months of promises and weeks of preparation, the very first Canadian government planeload of Syrian refugees landed in Toronto on Thursday, aboard a military aircraft met by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau was elected to a surprise majority in October promising to accept much more refugees much more swiftly than the previous Conservative government.
“This is a wonderful evening, where we get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada is all about, we get to show the planet how to open our hearts and welcome in folks who are fleeing extraordinarily tough situations,” Trudeau told airport workers and volunteers standing by to meet the refugees.
Trudeau’s Liberal government scaled back the number of Syrian migrants it will accept by year end soon after the attacks in Paris sparked concern that the election guarantee to bring in 25,000 by Dec. 31 would not allow sufficient time for security checks.
The plane carrying 163 Syrian refugees touched down in Toronto just ahead of midnight on Thursday and will be followed by a second military airlift to Montreal on Saturday. Trudeau has mentioned ten,000 will be resettled by the end of the year and a additional 15,000 by the end of February.
As Trudeau met the military aircraft amid tight security at a special terminal, privately sponsored Syrian refugees were arriving on commercial flights at Toronto’s principal terminal, greeted by sponsors and ordinary Canadians who had come to the airport to welcome the a lot-anticipated newcomers.
“They are extremely tired, but they are content and hopeful,” said Soriya Dasir, a worker with Abraham Festival, a group that sponsored a single mother and three young children who had been living in a camp in Jordan for two years, as she escorted them previous waiting media.
Toronto’s airport authority urged Canadians not to come to the airport to greet the refugees or drop off donations, saying: “We’re so proud that our community wants to aid, but such a response would be very overwhelming for those arriving.”
The request did not deter Shai Reef, 20, who held up a sign that study: “Welcome to Canada” in Arabic.
“I am right here to show my solidarity for and assistance of the Syrian men and women going by means of genocide in Syria,” Reef said. “As Jews, we were also locked out, I know what it feels like.”
Toronto’s mayor tweeted a welcome, even though the Toronto Star, the country’s largest newspaper, covered its front page with a “Welcome to Canada” banner headline in English and Arabic, along with an report explaining Canadian climate, ice hockey and slang.
The reception in Canada contrasted sharply with that of the neighboring United States, where fear of Syrian refugees following the deadly Nov. 13 Paris attacks spurred opposition to allowing them entry. Some U.S. governors said their states would not accept Syrian refugees.
With security concerns, immigration paperwork and the flight’s late-evening arrival, refugees on the military aircraft had been to be put up at a nearby hotel for the evening before meeting their sponsors and resettlement agencies on Friday.
(Additional reporting and writing by Andrea Hopkins in Toronto and David Ljunngren in Ottawa Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)