By Mike Adler, – Canada promised to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees. Toronto’s Armenian Community did not know a tenth of that number would be coming to them.
Days before the first planeload landed on Dec. 10, 2015, a committee of volunteers at the Armenian Community Centre straddling North York and Scarborough were told they would be meet the first group of Armenians from Syria.
The centre’s church at Hallcrown Place holds 500 people at most, but in a year more than 1,000 of its members privately co-sponsored and settled more than 400 Syrian Armenian families.
Most arrived within a few months, and caring for them pushed the centre’s resources to the limit, people involved in the effort there said.
“We used to bring, maximum, 40 to 60 people in a month. All of a sudden, we are going to have over 100 in one day – not in a month, in one day,” said Marianne Davitjan, master of ceremonies at a celebration last month marking the centre’s year of success.
But during the first weeks and months, the volunteers apparently could get little information from offices of Immigration and Citizenship Canada.
“They didn’t even answer the phone. I mean, we were left alone. We had to decide what to do,” recalled Apkar Mirakian, the man in charge of the resettlement program.
Armenian real estate agents scoured the area for housing, and volunteers scrambled to make other arrangements when families arrived and co-sponsors were away.
So many private sponsorships saved the government millions, he said, while the centre spent itself into “a dire situation,” enrolling students in its school for free and extending hours as it overtaxed the donor base it depends on.
But the settlement was a great success, both mobilizing and revitalizing an Armenian community, concentrated in Scarborough-Agincourt, Markham-Unionville and Don Valley East, built on waves of immigration.
“They didn’t become a so-called burden on the system here,” Mirakian said of the new arrivals.
Over 90 per cent of job seekers among them are now working, “paying their rents,” said Ohannes Tchamichian, an Armenian Syrian who arrived last Dec. 15, on the second plane.
Tchmichian, his parents and sister were sponsored by a grandfather’s cousin, a man they hadn’t met, who “didn’t hesitate to do it for us” and is now a neighbour in Agincourt.
Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria’s largest and most devastated city, Tchmichian said the country needs 30 years to rebuild, and the war has spread beyond its borders.
“The infrastructure is destroyed, the history is destroyed,” he said. “They are not calling it World War Three, but it is.”
Vanig Garabedian was on the first plane last Dec. 10, with his wife and three daughters. He was met by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Pearson Internation Airport.
”All the way here we felt the utmost dignity and humanity,” said Garabedian, who said newcomer’s role is to integrate, like someone “once again reborn,” learning the language, the streets, the culture.
He’s sure this wave of newcomers will make Canada a better place.