'We're trying': Syrian refugees gather in Montreal to mark 1 year since first arrivals

For Syrian refugees George Kasbarsoum and Chama Zakko, living in Montreal has brought both new opportunities and new anxieties.

Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum says improvements are always possible to resettlement process

Quebec Immigration minister Kathleen Weil, left, talks with Syrian refugee Faten Nseirat during an event to mark the one-year anniversary of the arrival of refugees from Syria to Canada. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

For Syrian refugees George Kasbarsoum and Chama Zakko, living in Montreal has brought both new opportunities and new anxieties.

Kasbarsoum was a head and neck surgeon with 10 years experience in Aleppo and Zakko had just graduated from dentistry school before the couple fled their war-torn hometown. 

While relieved to reach the safety of Canada with their loved ones, they worry they may never find work in their chosen fields here.

"We're trying," Zakko said.

"The government has given us a chance at a good life... but if there's no working, there's no money."

George Kasbarsoum and Chama Zakko worry their medical qualifications won't be recognized in Canada, even if they pass a series of exams. (CBC)

Zakko and Kasbarsoum were two of hundreds of Syrian refugees who gathered in Montreal Sunday to mark a year since the first group of Syrians arrived in Canada under a federal program that has promised to resettle 25,000 by the end of 2016.

They were joined by federal Immigration Minister John McCallum, his Quebec counterpart Kathleen Weil, Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. 

'Better is always possible'

In his assessment of the resettlement process that he was tasked with overseeing, McCallum quoted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"Better is always possible," he said. "And I am the first to acknowledge that there's a lot more to be done."

McCallum highlighted improvements that have been made to the resettlement process over the last year, including halving the time it takes to bring a spouse over from two years to one and a reduction in the time it takes to get a permanent resident card. 

He said the civil servants implementing the programs have learned from the experiences of the past year, and continue to do so.

"They learned that it's possible to do things much quicker but to also do them well," he said.

Syrian refugee Samer Beylouneh, left, wipes a tear as his daughter Laila is greeted by her aunt Marie Belona, centre, at a welcome centre, in Montreal on Dec. 12, 2015. The family, originally from Aleppo, was reunited after eight years. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Weil said Quebec welcomed 6,893 Syrians over the last year and is on track to attain its goal of 7,300 by the end of 2016. 

"I've met so many refugees over the last year and there's a common thread of courage and determination that runs through their stories," she told the assembled crowd. 

"Today, you are all Quebecers and we're happy to know you're now safe among us."

Noting that 70 per cent of the resettled Syrians are now in Montreal, Coderre said it was an emotional day for everyone who's been involved in the resettlement process.

"Today is about what we can do and how to improve to have as many of them as possible," he said.

"Canada, Quebec, Montreal — we're all working together, sticking together for the same cause. It's all about human beings."

A 'new home in Canada'

Trudeau and some of his cabinet ministers were on hand Dec. 10, 2015, to greet the first plane load of refugees who arrived at Toronto's Pearson airport.

A similar scene played out at Montreal's Trudeau airport, and that occasion will be remembered today.

Trudeau noted the anniversary on Twitter.

Images of Trudeau welcoming refugees as they put on winter clothing received extensive international coverage.

Although several hundred Syrians had arrived in the preceding weeks by commercial flights, the governing Liberals made the arrival of refugees by government planes a much-publicized event.

with files from Canadian Press