After months of promises and weeks of preparation, the first Canadian government planeload of Syrian refugees landed in Toronto on Thursday, aboard a military aircraft met by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“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,” Trudeau told airport workers and volunteers standing by to meet the refugees.
Trudeau was elected to a surprise majority in October promising to accept more refugees more quickly than the previous Conservative government. But his Liberal government scaled back the number of Syrian migrants it will accept by year end after the attacks in Paris sparked concern that the initial promise to bring in 25,000 by year’s end would not allow enough time for security checks.
A plane carrying 163 Syrian refugees touched down in Toronto just before midnight on Thursday and will be followed by a second military airlift to Montreal on Saturday. Trudeau has said 10,000 will be resettled by the end of the year and a further 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 main terminal, greeted by sponsors and ordinary Canadians who had come to the airport to welcome the much-anticipated newcomers.
“They are very tired, but they are happy and hopeful,” said Soriya Dasir, a worker with Abraham Festival, a group that sponsored a single mother and three children who had been living in a camp in Jordan for two years, as she escorted them past 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 help, 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 read: “Welcome to Canada” in Arabic.
“I'm here to show my solidarity for and support of the Syrian people going through genocide in Syria,” Reef said. “As Jews, we were also locked out, I know what it feels like.”
Toronto's mayor tweeted a welcome, while 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 article explaining Canadian weather, ice hockey and slang.
A handful of Syrians who were brought to Canada last month say the reception in Canada has been warm for them so far.
Rakan Al-Masri, who fled the besieged city of Homs in 2014 with his wife and five children, landed in Canada on Nov. 30 under the sponsorship of the local Ahmaddiyya religious community. He told Al Jazeera that the bombing and fighting gave him “no choice but to leave.”
“It’s a safe country … so we are lucky,” Masri said, speaking inside the Baitul Islam Mosque in Vaughan, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. “We know that the education is at a high-level – it’s my priority for my children to help their life, their education.”
Najeeb, Rakan’s 19-year-old son, echoed those hopes. “All that I’m thinking about is my studies,” he said. “I want to thank Canada’s government because it is a new life, a new opportunity.
The welcome 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.
Masri noted that Syrians had a long history of welcoming refugees from its neighbors – Lebanese, Iraqi, and Palestinian. “They came to our society and they stayed until they were finished and went back.
“The earth is [big enough] to fit us all,” he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Robert Ray contributed reporting.