A group of children held welcome signs as a crowd erupted in cheers at Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport on Wednesday as a Yazidi family came down the escalator getting the first glimpse of their new home and community.
The family of nine, including seven children, came to the city through Operation Ezra, a Winnipeg multi-faith grassroots group that is privately sponsoring Yazidi refugee families.
"I'm looking forward to walking out for the doors and just taking a deep breath without fearing and without worrying about my kids," said Dawod Murad, speaking through a translator.
"We know there is a bright future ahead for me and my children."
Canada will become home to 1,200 other Yazidi refugees and other survivors of ISIS by the end of 2017, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced on Tuesday. Hussen said that nearly 400 had already arrived. Of those, about 74 per cent are Yazidi.
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The announcement came four months after the House of Commons unanimously supported a Conservative motion that called on the government to provide asylum to an unspecified number of Yazidi women and girls.
The motion recognized that members of ISIS, militants fighting to establish an Islamist state, are committing genocide against the Yazidi people and holding many of the group's women and girls as sex slaves. The Yazidis are a largely Kurdish-speaking religious group with a 6,000-year-old culture.
The government will also facilitate private sponsorships of Yazidi refugees.
Murad and his family fled from a small community near Mount Sinjar in Iraq and eventually ended up in a refugee camp in Turkey. Murad said other family members are scattered between refugee camps in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
"Our entire lives we've been living in hell, pretty much, and the last two years have been devastating and heartbreaking to watch my young kids with no education and not having food to eat and no medical attention in the camps," he said. "It's been very, very heart breaking."
When he learned that more than 1,000 other Yazidis would be coming to Canada this year, he said he is grateful because their entire population is facing genocide.
"I know how desperate these people are because my family and I were there two days ago," he said.
A young Yazidi couple privately sponsored through Operation Ezra also arrived on Wednesday.
Nafiya Naso spent her childhood in a refugee camp in Syria before coming to Manitoba with her family about 16 years ago, so she knows the joy other Yazidis feel when they learn Canada will be their home.
"In that refugee camp there was nothing, absolutely nothing — living in that tent and having nothing to eat," she said.
Last summer Naso spoke to the House of Commons standing committee on immigration, explaining her own story and her work with Operation Ezra,
Naso said she encouraged the government to bring in 5,000 Yazidi refugees in 2017 but understands there are other groups who also need help. She said "1,200 is a big number considering it is a small community."
Wednesday's arrivals will brought the group's total number of privately sponsored refugees to 35.
Belle Jarniewski, president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council and a member of Operation Ezra, said their goal is to bring in 27 more.
"The government has also mentioned that they will expedite private sponsorship as well, which is one of the things that Operation Ezra has been working so hard on," Jarniewski said.
'Desperate to come to Canada'
The phone hasn't stopped ringing since the announcement for Hadji Hesso, a co-founder of the Canadian Yazidi Assoc.
"That's awesome news that we are going to see some Yazidis that are going to come to Canada, that are desperate to come to Canada," he said.
He was born in Iraq and fled to Syria in 1990, where his family stayed for 10 years before they were sponsored to come to Canada by a church in Morden, Man.
"I went through my experience for me as a refugee. What happened to me and where I am now, I will do anything for anybody, any Yazidi family to bring them to a great country such as Canada," he said.
However, Hesso said he did not hear of any government-sponsored arrivals before the last few days.
The government has been tight-lipped on the resettlement steps, and would say only that the Yazidis are expected to settle in cities in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario and possibly other provinces.
Hesso said he has learned of six families arriving in Manitoba over the last five days, but he's not sure about the hundreds of others.
Hesso said there is a close-knit network of advocates who keep in regular contact across the country and they would like to help the government in resettling the Yazidi refugees.