'Welcome to Canada': Ont. sponsors greet early Syrian refugee arrivals

TORONTO -- Cheers erupted at Toronto's Pearson airport as two families of Syrian refugees emerged from the arrival gate Wednesday night and came face to face with those whose support brought them to Canada.

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The newcomers appeared weary but moved by the sea of strangers awaiting them. Emotions shone through clearly, however, when they spotted a familiar face -- a friend from their hometown in Syria who had arrived as a refugee only a week earlier.

Mazen Khabbaz, 46, and his brother Ziad Khabbaz, 48, both embraced Rakan Almasri, who had waited with the crowd for more than four hours in order to welcome them.

The men were separated 2 1/2 years ago when the Khabbaz families fled to Egypt, said Almasri, 44.

"I missed them," he said. "It's wonderful to meet each other after that long time."

The eldest Khabbaz and his wife have three children, two of them teenagers, according to their sponsors. The youngest brother and his wife have four children between six and 16 years old.

The brothers spoke briefly through their friend, who acted as translator, saying they were surprised by the welcome and grateful for the help that Canadians and their government have provided.

When asked what they knew of Canada before their arrival, Mazen Khabbaz said: "We just think that Canada is the country of peace ... we will also participate in peace, making peace."

Though himself new to the country, Almasri pledged to help his friends adjust to their new home.

Their sponsors were also quick to take the families under their wing, handing out bags bursting with winter coats, clothes and children's backpacks.

Lubna Malik stood at the gate for hours flanked by her husband and other relatives, who took turns hoisting up a sign that read "Welcome to Canada Khabbaz family."

They learned Sunday that the two families would be arriving in a matter of days and had been scrambling ever since to get everything ready, she said.

For now, she said, the refugees will be staying with community members who have freed up their basement apartments in Milton, Ont., but only until more permanent lodging is found.

Malik and her husband are part of several families to join forces to sponsor Syrian refugees through a Muslim community group -- the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at.

"In Islam, we are supposed to help our fellow human beings," the stay-at-home mother of three said. "I think we all feel empathetic to them, these are people that were just like us and now they've lost everything.

"We are pretty much cancelling whatever we can because we just want to be there for them."

The group's spokesman, Safwan Choudhry, said the fundraising effort began only a few weeks ago, but the families had been on a waiting list for some time.

It was announced Wednesday afternoon that the first government airlift of Syrian refugees would arrive Thursday night.

The Liberal government has committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February, with 10,000 of them set to arrive by year's end.

Temporary processing centres have been set up to handle the waves of newcomers at Toronto's Pearson airport and Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport.



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