Syrian refugees get warm welcome at Armenian community centre

About 90 newcomers from Syria were reunited with family members or met their private sponsors for the first time at a happy and emotional celebration in Toronto on Friday.

Many newcomers expected to stay in the Greater Toronto Area

Cerli Katchadorian, 7, lost her mother amid the violence in Syria. On Friday, she was one of the first Syrian refugees welcomed to Toronto. (John Rieti/CBC)

Hugging her father tightly, Cerli Katchadorian said the best thing about Canada is the playground.

Soon, the seven-year-old will get to play there every day when she goes to the school attached to the Armenian Cultural Centre in north Toronto. But today, she is one of the 92 Syrian refugees who came to the centre for a joyous welcome on their first day in this country.

Cerli's family were among the 163 aboard a Canadian government jet that touched down at Toronto's Pearson International Airport late Thursday. Eventually, Canada will welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees, thousands of whom are expected to settle in the Greater Toronto Area.

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      Like many in attendance, Cerli's life has been touched by tragedy. Hovic Katchadorian, her father, says his wife was killed during a rocket attack near a church in Aleppo. When Cerli asks about her, Hovic said, he tries to distract her with games.

      After the attack, Katchadorian fled with his daughter and his mother to Lebanon. Two weeks ago he received the news that he would be coming to Canada and was "very, very happy," he said through an interpreter.

      Happiness everywhere

      That happiness was everywhere at Friday's event where newcomers — most of whom are Armenian-Syrian — were matched up with their private sponsors, who for some were family members while for others complete strangers.

      Mareina Gebeil, smiling as her daughter held a stuffed bear holding a Canadian flag and her son played in a donated Toronto Maple Leafs jacket, said she considered her sponsors "just like angels."

      After recounting her joy of finding out she was coming to Canada through a translator, Gebeil tried out a thank you message in English: "God bless Canada and the people."

      All of the children received a special treat on Friday, a chocolate Santa for the holidays. (John Rieti/CBC)
      She said coming here after fleeing from Damascus means a "new life."

      That new life begins after today's event, when many of the newcomers, who are now permanent residents of Canada, are taken to their new homes and begin tasks ranging from learning English to searching for new work.

      "Today was a big day," said organizer Lorig Garboushian-Katerjian, who herself left Syria for Dubai about 20 years ago before coming to Canada in 2010.

      Over the last four or five years nobody knew when Syrian refugees arrived in Toronto, Garboushian-Katerjian said, and she would go and pick them up from the airport herself.

      That's completely changed now.

      Centre of the country's attention

      At the community centre, she managed a team of volunteers looking for apartments for hundreds of new arrivals (a few families were still looking for places to stay on Friday afternoon) and filling out registration sheets that may eventually help families find work or make other key connections.

      There were plenty of smiles amid prayers and applause as church leaders heaped praise on those who had organized the event.

      Before that, a priest handed out chocolate Santas to the delight of the children attending a special sermon. Among them was Madeleine Jamkossian, a 16-month-old baby who was one of the first people greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory — not that she'll likely remember it.

      Kevork Jamkossian, her beaming father who was covered in melted chocolate from Madeleine's partially eaten Santa, said he was so excited last night that he couldn't sleep when the familyarrived at an airport hotel. How will he ever explain these amazing days to his daughter? "I don't know," he said.

      Even if he can't explain it, Kevork said he's looking forward to trying. Earlier, as he spoke with Trudeau through an interpreter, he and his wife told the prime minister they felt like they had lived through hell and arrived in paradise, and that their daughter's future was the reason they made the trip.

      With files from Makda Ghebreslassie and Ghalia Bdiwe