Two Syrian refugee families arrived in Manitoba this afternoon. As they descended the escalator into the arrivals' area of Winnipeg's James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, their first view of their new home was of over 100 smiling faces, children with welcome signs and a First Nations group drumming.
Overwhelming? Sure. But it filled them with joy.
"She feels that people love them and there is no hate, and she will be loved," said Salwa Yagoub, translating for 15-year-old Nada Daas, who just arrived with her parents and seven siblings.
The Daas family is from Damascus in Syria, and spent the past 3 ½ years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, an experience they describe as very difficult.
"She says thank you for everything you did for them, and the welcome and everything; she's very happy for that," Yagoub said, again translating for Daas.
A volunteer group in Altona, Man., helped sponsor the family of nine with the federal government. The children range in age from two to 19 years old.
As the family stood in the luggage area, volunteers from Altona gathered around them, thrilled to finally meet the first of five families they've helped sponsor to Canada. Residents filled Syrian children's hands with stuffed toys and soccer balls.
Build a Village, a non-profit volunteer group in Altona, has spent the past week scrambling to get a two-storey house furnished and cleaned for this family, and now it's ready. They knew the family would be arriving some time this year; they had five days notice that the family was on their way.
"One of the things that makes it so special is when a new family like this arrives, we get to see Manitoba and Canada and Altona again through their eyes for the first time," said Ray Loewen, who chairs the campaign.
"And you realize how blessed we are to live in the country we do," he added.
"They had lots of problems there…. They didn't feel safe being there," a translator said, speaking in English again for Daas of her memories of Syria.
The volunteer group is expecting four more Syrian families that they've helped sponsor in the coming days.
Another family of eight from Syria arrived on the same plane this afternoon and is also now grateful to call Winnipeg home.
The Albakar family spent three years in Lebanon waiting for their chance for freedom in Canada.
"He said I'm very happy to reach here, Winnipeg," a translator said speaking for Yaser Albakar, who was a baker in Syria.
"He said I will learn English … my children, they are in safe hands. I need them to continue their education, soon I can speak and I can find a job here, in my country. This is my country," he said.
His children range in age from nine months to 14 years old. His daughter has a medical condition that requires her to be in a wheelchair. He said he looks forward to getting her the physiotherapy she needs, as it was stalled for two years when they fled Syria for Lebanon.
'Fighting and war'
"He said there is fighting and war in our area; it's not safe for me and my children. So I took them out from Syria to Lebanon," Albakar through the interpreter.
"He said I am very happy with that welcoming and I am thankful for the government, the First Nations and for you all to say 'welcome to Canada'," the interpreter added, after the Albakars were presented with drumming from women of Roseau River First Nation.
The family will be staying at Welcome Place while they look for permanent housing in Winnipeg.
Rita Chahal with Welcome Place said Winnipeggers have been incredible in offering their support, and she hopes to continue working with the public and volunteers to make the families feel welcome. Several other families from Syria have arrived this month, and Chahal admitted there have been challenges related to housing.
- Welcome Place ready to house Syrian refugees in Winnipeg
- Refugees' first year in Canada can be one of challenges, joy
"The other thing of course is to make sure the health needs are met. Many of the folks are coming from war-zones, and we expect that they will [have] some psycho-social concerns that we will have to deal with, or trauma," she added.
Both Welcome Place and Build a Village have several supports already set up for the families, including translators, health-care professionals and educators.
Loewen said in the town of about 4,200, about 200 people have given time and money towards sponsoring the families. He said many residents are of Ukrainian or Russian descent and their ancestors came to Canada as refugees.
"Part of it is wanting to give back, part of it is also our faith. As Christians we're called to welcome the stranger and to love your neighbour, and what better way to welcome the stranger and love thy neighbour than to welcome a refugee family?" he said.
In the coming weeks, both Syrian families will get some time to relax and adjust to their new country, and will get any medical attention they require. The children will begin integrating into the schools in January.
Meanwhile, the families are settling into Welcome Place and the two-storey house in Altona. They've ventured outside for their first experience of sub-zero temperatures and snow.
"It's OK … cold, not death," said Albakar through an interpreter.
The Daas family wasn't too worried about the weather either.
"She hopes people will love them, and they have a good house and they have the feeling of safety, not afraid of being in that place," said Salwa, interpreting again for Daas.
"She's happy that she sees the smiles on Canadian faces that they're here."