A crowd of refugees attending a welcome event at the Muslim Association of Canada Centre in Vancouver was pepper sprayed by an unknown man on a bicycle.

It happened outside the centre on the Kingsway near Victoria Drive around 10:30 p.m. as the event was winding down and the group of newcomers to Canada was waiting for a bus.

This incident drew condemnation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

 "This isn't who we are," Trudeau said in a tweet. Robertson, also on Twitter, described the incident as a "disgusting display of hate."

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) sees the attack as potential hate crime.

"This is an act of cowardice condemned by all Canadians of conscience. We call on local authorities to investigate this assault as a potential hate crime so a clear message is sent that such abhorrent acts have no place in our communities," said NCCM Board Chair Kashif A. Ahmed, a Vancouver-based lawyer.

Refugee pepper spray

A woman leaves the Muslim Association of Canada centre on Kingsway after a large group of Syrian refugees were attacked with pepper spray. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Nawal Addo, 17, was raised in Canada, but was outside with the group at the time of the attack.

"We were just standing outside and we all just started coughing and our eyes were burning. We were really confused about what was going on," she said.

Ammar Ramadan was inside the building at the time, but soon noticed the chaos outside.

"Next thing you know, people are running and screaming, everyone's dashing inside. A bunch of kids were crying. I was a little confused as to what was happening."

Pepper spray attack on Syrian refugees

'They should be treated way better than this,' said Nawal Addo, who was with the refugees when the attack took place. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"A guy at the front actually was, like, his eyes were completely covered, he couldn't see for a whole, like, 20 minutes. Some kids got unconscious because of how strong it was," said Ramadan. "A bunch of women and children, they were all just affected by it."

As many as 30 children, women and men were treated for exposure to pepper spray by paramedics and the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service.

The "Welcome Night" was put on for newly arriving Syrian families and included local politicians.

Refugee pepper spray

Syrian refugees who have just arrived in Canada are loaded onto a bus after a pepper spray attack affected as many as 30 people outside a welcoming event. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Refugees 'disappointed,' says organizer

Tarek Ramadam, who helped organize the welcome event, said the refugees were "confused" and a "little bit disappointed."

They were told that Canada is "this great country," but Friday's incident brought back painful memories of persecution in Syria.

Tarek Ramadan said the attack won't deter organizers from hosting future welcoming ceremonies for refugees, but he said organizers may consider hiring security for future events.

Police are searching for the suspect, who is believed to have been wearing a white hooded sweatshirt. In a statement,  Vancouver Police Sgt. Randy Fincham called the incident "extremely troubling," and said police are treating the incident as a "hate-motivated" crime.

  

Refugee pepper spray

A few people linger in the Muslim Association of Canada hall after a pepper spray attack outside. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Both Ammar Ramadan and Addo said opinion was mixed about whether the group was targeted because they're Syrian refugees. Ramadan pointed out that the group was in front of the well-known Muslim Association of Canada community centre.

Ammar Ramadan, who has been very involved in welcoming Syrians arriving in Canada, said the incident sends the wrong message, whether it was targeted or random.

"I feel like they came here to escape [persecution], and to escape all the struggles from the place they came from. And now, their first day back they're going to experience something like this," said Ramadan. "One guy said, in Arabic — rough translation — he said, 'I shouldn't have even came here in the first place if it was going to be like this.' You know, I feel bad for them."

Refugee pepper spray

First responders were called to assist a large group of Syrian refugees who were attacked by a man with pepper spray Friday night in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)