From Syria to Canada, with Hope for a Better Future

“It’s really hard to leave my family behind, but I’m doing this for my baby,” Nour (27) says as she holds her 5-month-old baby boy, Nathalio in her lap. Her husband, Shadi, holds her hand. They are making the journey of a lifetime – 9,380 kilometers and 7 time zones from Aleppo to be exact. The young family is amongst the lucky ones who have been selected for resettlement in Canada. Having lived in Beirut for eight months, a church in Edmonton has sponsored their resettlement and a chance at a new life.

Many of the 163 on the first airlift of the historic movement of what will be 25,000 Syrians to Canada over the next couple of months, share the same story. The sacrifice of moving from extended family links and a familiar culture with a shared language is very significant, but so are the chances for a brighter and much safer future in Canada.

“I’m doing this for my son,” says Rita, a lawyer headed to Calgary with her husband and rambunctious, charming four-year-old Elie.

“Our girls will have the chance to go to school in peace,” says Vanig, a gynecologist traveling with his wife and three daughters, two of them twins. They all wear the same pink winter coats, smiling with nervous excitement.

The plane departs Beirut, and many eyes are filled with tears for what is being left behind. Shadi and Nour hold hands while baby Nathalio smiles and tolerates the ascent better than most infants his age would.

“We know we’re making history,” says a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 437 Squadron, which is facilitating the transport operation via military plane. “But it’s also about doing the right thing. I’m honored to be here, even if I’m working over Christmas.”

Syrian refugees aboard a plane to Toronto. © IOM/Taryn Fivek 2015

With more than nine million Syrians displaced due to the war in Syria, the Canadian government is leading the way by accepting 25,000 refugees from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as permanent residents. Hundreds of flights chartered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will facilitate the movement, with hundreds of staff on the ground in these countries mobilized to assist the Canadian government in processing those chosen by UNHCR for resettlement. IOM provides transportation, registration, medical checks and logistics support, as well as escorts to accompany the migrants to Canada.  

Once in Canada, the 163 Syrians who stepped on the plane as refugees step off as migrants, with tremendous hopes and plans for the future. “The day I heard I was coming to Canada, I applied to three universities in Toronto – York, University of Toronto, and Ryerson,” says Edy, 19. “I want to study robotics.”

When the plane touches down in Canada after the 13-hour journey, the cabin erupts in cheers and applause. Youths pose for selfies with one another, sporting giant smiles.

After arriving to a specially refitted terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport and receiving permanent residency and social insurance numbers, these 163 people will have the opportunity to become full Canadian citizens.

After processing by the Canadian Border Services Agency, they are greeted at the airport by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum, Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan, Minister of Health Jane Philpott, lots of media, and a crowd of smiling Canadian civil servants.

There are many tears shed in happiness and hope.

With more than 65 years of experience in assisting safe and orderly migration, IOM stands ready to assist the Canadian government in this tremendous effort to assist Syrians displaced by nearly five years of horrific war.

As IOM Director General William Lacy Swing has said, such an initiative reflects courage. Not just for the Canadian government, but also for the 25,000 Syrians moving nearly 10,000 kilometers away to begin their new lives in Canada.