25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada; McCallum calls missed deadlines 'little details'

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum is celebrating the arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, while brushing off criticism about missed deadlines and a lack of permanent housing.

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McCallum told reporters gathered at Toronto’s airport that the shifting deadlines are just “little details” that “take on a life of their own, because we did make a commitment.”

The minister said the important thing to focus on is the number of people who have been helped.

“I have said many, many times that it’s more important to do it right than it is to do it fast,” he said. “We have done it right in terms of health and security.”

The minister added that Canada’s achievement is sending a message to the world. “Many countries … are making it more difficult for refugees to come in,” he said. “We’re among the few countries saying, ‘No, come on in.’”

The Liberals promised during the federal election to bring in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by New Year’s Day. That was revised to 10,000 -- including privately-sponsored refugees -- by New Year’s Day, with a goal of 25,000 by Feb. 29.

The revised target of 25,000 was met on Saturday, when government figures showed 14,383 government-sponsored, 8,527 privately-sponsored and 2,170 supported by both the government and private sponsors had landed.

McCallum explained on CTV’s Power Play that the 25,000 government-sponsored refugees promised during the election will be in Canada by the end of this year, one year after the deadline announced during the campaign.

He also said Canada will also admit “thousands more” privately-sponsored refugees in 2016, which would bring the total admitted since the Liberals took office to at least 35,000.

The minister said full details of his targets are coming in about 10 days.

McCallum also faced questions at Monday’s press conference about whether the pace of resettlement was too quick, considering reports that refugees are having trouble finding housing.

The minister admitted there are problems finding housing in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but said more than half of the Syrians are permanently housed, and the government is now “spreading the refugees out to more places.”

McCallum added that “we’re not popping any champagne, because we’re completely conscious of the fact there remains a large amount of work.”

McCallum said on Power Play that getting 25,000 refugees to Canada was the “easy part.”

“The more challenging part is to help them find permanent housing, learn English or French, get jobs and become normal hard-working Canadians like refugees before them have done,” he said.

“There are many jobs available for which companies have trouble finding workers … relatively low-skilled jobs, which these individuals could do,” the minister added.

McCallum told reporters at the press conference that “phase one” of the refugee resettlement has cost less than $700-million.

The Canadian Council for Refugees has issued a statement congratulating the government on reaching the milestone.

"The fulfillment of this commitment gives us confidence that 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees will arrive by the end of 2016, as also promised by the government," the council's president, Loly Rico, said in the statement.

"We applaud the government for creating a welcoming spirit and recognizing the contributions that refugees are bringing to Canada."

‘Doing their best’

As the new arrivals adjust to life in this country, one refugee father and his Canadian sponsor described how the resettlement process worked out for them.

Arsho Zakarian helped sponsor Kevork Manougian and his family, who arrived in Canada on Feb. 19.

In total, Zakarian sponsored Manougian, his mother, his wife, and their young son. She said she didn't know the family beforehand, but was matched with the family through an Armenian community group.

She told CTV's Canada AM that everyone in the Armenian-Canadian community is pitching in to help the refugees, collecting household items for them, and searching to find them apartments and jobs.

"Of course everything is not perfect," Zakarian said, but everyone is "doing their best."

Manougian, 35, said before coming to Canada, he and his family lived in Aleppo, Syria, where they faced the constant threat of bombing and several times missed being struck by mere "seconds."

The family eventually fled Syria for Lebanon, where they remained for nine months before coming to Canada.

He said he can't thank Zakarian enough for sponsoring his family, and giving them a chance at a new life. "We thank her because of this step that she took," he said. "She's like an aunt to me now."

And even though Manougian, an experienced goldsmith and musician, has only been in Canada a short while, the Armenian community is working hard to help him and his family settle as quickly as possible, Zakarian said.

This means helping to show them around, explaining the transit system, taking them to medical appointments, and editing Manougian's resume to help fit North American standards.

And it appears that all the work may be paying off.

"He had his first (job) interview last Tuesday," Zakarian said.

Syrian Catholic bishop holds mass

The 25,000 refugees, who have been resettled in different cities across the country, are already making their mark in many communities.

In Laval, Que., Canada's first-ever Syrian Catholic bishop held his first mass on Sunday.

Pope Francis recently appointed Bishop Paul Antoine Nassif to the St-Ephrem Syrian Catholic church.

The bishop said it's one of his major goals to help the Syrian refugees integrate into Canadian life.

There are only five Syrian Catholic churches in Canada, but with the growing influx of refugees, the congregations are expected to grow.

Many of the parishioners at St-Ephrems expect the church to play a central role in helping the refugee families adjust.

Parishioner Murad Yousef Hannoush is sponsoring five people in the next few weeks. He said many of the refugee families attended weekly church services back in Syria.

"It's part of their life," he said. "It's very, very important, spiritually, faithfully."

With files from CTV Vancouver and CTV Montreal



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