'A Canadian hand': Syrian doctor plans to provide medical care in his new country

Last December, Vanig Garabedian stepped off a plane at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, never expecting that the Prime Minister would be one of the first to greet him. On World Refugee day, he told CBC's Metro Morning he'd go anywhere in Canada to help patients.

'I have a mission as a physician to be with my patients, with the people'

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives Syrian refugees Lucie Garabedian, centre, and and her twin sister Sylvie Garabedian, left, winter jackets as their father, Vanig Garabedian, comforts his other daughter Anna-Maria Garabedian, right, after arriving at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Vanig Garabedian can remember the exact moment he knew he had to leave his home in Syria.

As a gynaecologist, he'd long been the target of threats from Muslim fundamentalists because he was a male doctor who treated women, but he didn't think to leave. He'd operated on a woman in labour by candle-light after a rocket fell on the hospital he was working out of, but still didn't think to leave.

But when three buildings collapsed before his very eyes, he knew life in Syria had deteriorated to the point that it would never again be the same.

"That very moment was my last moment," Garabedian told CBC Metro Morning host Matt Galloway on Monday, which was World Refugee Day. "I took the decision to leave and went to Lebanon and eventually with dignity, we came to Canada."

About a year later, he stepped off a plane at Toronto's Pearson Airport, weary from a long journey but elated for his newfound safety, and never expecting that the prime minister would be one of the first to greet him.

Six months ago, the Prime Minister was at Pearson Airport, shaking hands with the first refugees to arrive as part of the government's pledge, one of them was Vanig Garabedian, Matt Galloway spoke with him this morning. 8:32

Garabedian and his family were among the first Syrian refugees airlifted to Canada as part of the federal government's pledge to bring 25,000 refugees to safety.

"We left Beirut 24 hours before and we were expecting to come to Toronto," Garabedian said.

'Canada became our home'

But when he found himself shaking hands with Justin Trudeau, he says, "I felt that I didn't come to Toronto… actually I came to Canada because the head of the federal government welcomed you at the airport."

"Canada became our home at that very moment," he said.

That was about six months ago — long enough for the challenges of settling into a new life in a new country to become all too real.

But during that time, Garabedian says he researched about his new home and learned something that surprised him: that outside of the big cities there are countless areas where Canadians themselves don't have access to adequate medical care.

Syrian refugee family's first 5 months in Canada

The National

5 years ago
'People are very generous and compassionate and willing to help us...wherever we go we see that Canadian smile,' Vanig Garabedian says 5:17

"I realized there are many places in Canada under-serviced, so I have the intention to move wherever people need a physician," he said.

The same commitment that drove him to operate in some of the most trying conditions — without electricity, without water —  back home now motivates him to help in his new home.

"I have a mission as a physician to be with my patients, with the people," Garabedian said.

"We felt that we were sinking and somebody extended a hand — and that was a Canadian hand."

And today, Garabedian extends his own.