Armenian centre in Willowdale to accept more than 1,000 refugees

There are already roughly 350 Syrian refugees adjusting to their first winter in Canada, the first days of a new life, thanks to the Armenian Community Centre in Willowdale.

Already more than 350 people have been settled in the Greater Toronto Area

Lena and Koko Agigian and their sons say they are getting lots of help from the Armenian Community Centre in Willowdale as they adjust to life in Canada. (CBC News)

There are already roughly 350 Syrian refugees adjusting to their first winter in Canada, the first days of a new life, thanks to the Armenian Community Centre in Willowdale.

The centre's co-ordinator will see her phone ring all day, as Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) alerts her of new arrivals.

Lorig Garboushian and volunteers have picked up more than 20 people in a day, just the beginning of the 1,079 newcomers they will be sponsoring. That's roughly half of the 2,600 refugees Toronto will be accepting, according to the numbers released two weeks ago by CIC.

'They were forced to leave'

There's always someone there at the airport to welcome the arrivals, whose faces often belie conflicted emotions.

"They will be happy but it's not full," Garboushian said. "Their circumstances are different from other newcomers, because they are leaving a lot of things back there. Their memories, their houses, the business, a full life — they were forced to leave."

That was the experience of Lena and Koko Agigian and their two sons before arriving in Canada three days ago.

As the Syrian civil war worsened, they fled to Lebanon where they had been living for six months.

Now that they are in Canada there's so much to learn, they say, everything from navigating transit, getting a driver's license and enrolling Hrag and Avo in school.

Learning English

And, most importantly, Lena Agigian says, learning English, although she already has a strong grasp of the language.

"It's a little bit hard, because we don't know Canada, yet. We don't know Toronto, yet. We don't know the ways."

But they are already finding themselves part of a new community, she says, at the Armenian community centre.

"All of them are helping us… we are just feeling, we are feeling good."

The federal government requires a private sponsor to show proof that they can provide $25,000 to help settle a family of four.

Only $100

But the community centre asks only that a sponsor commit to pay $100. As a community sponsor the centre needs to prove to Ottawa that, within all its members, it has the manpower and the financial resources to help people settle here successfully.

And it does not require that either the sponsor or the refugees be of Armenian background.

The Armenian community is one that routinely welcomes those in need, because of its historic experience with oppression, the program's director Apkar Mirakian says.

"They are relatives and we have gone through this before," he said. "My mother and grandfather went through the genocide. We have gone through this difficulty.


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