TORONTO (Reuters) - After months of promises and weeks of preparation, the first planeload of Syrian refugees was headed to Canada on Thursday, aboard a military plane to be met at Toronto’s airport by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau’s newly elected Liberal government scaled back the number of Syrian migrants it will accept by year end after the attacks in Paris sparked concern that bringing in 25,000 by Dec. 31 - an election promise - would not allow enough time for security checks.
Some 300 Syrian refugees were expected to arrive on two military flights, the first arriving in Toronto on Thursday and the second in Montreal on Saturday. Trudeau has said 10,000 will be resettled by the end of the year and a further 15,000 by the end of February.
Toronto’s mayor tweeted a welcome, while the Toronto Star, the nation’s largest newspaper, covered its front page with a “Welcome to Canada” banner headline in English and Arabic, along with an article explaining Canadian weather, ice hockey and quirky local slang.
The Syrians’ reception in Canada contrasted sharply with that of the neighboring United States, where fear of Syrian refugees following the deadly Nov. 13 Paris attacks spurred opposition to allowing them in. Some U.S. governors said their states would not accept Syrian refugees.
Canadian refugee groups and private sponsors said they were excited and scrambling to prepare for the arrival of the families, who have been chosen from camps in Lebanon and Jordan after fleeing Syria’s four-year-old civil war.
“Everyone is excited. We will be ready,” said Lorig Garboushian-Katrjian, a coordinator at the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto, which has helped sponsor 71 refugees arriving on the first plane.
With security concerns, immigration paperwork and the flight’s late-night arrival, most sponsors and family members will not be able to meet the refugees at the airport, but the government has arranged for the refugees to stay overnight at nearby hotels, Garboushian-Katrjian said.
She said she had spoken to some of the families before they boarded the plane and said no one minds the extra night in a hotel.
“They said they are OK, no problem, one more day, it won’t count compared to the three or four years that have passed,” she said in a telephone interview. “It is the final destination for them to start a new life.”
While one provincial premier and some opposition politicians initially said Trudeau was accepting too many refugees too quickly, his decision to push back the timeline by two months silenced much of the criticism.
Trudeau was elected to a surprise majority in October promising to accept more refugees more quickly than the previous Conservative government.
Additional reporting and writing by Andrea Hopkins in Toronto and David Ljunngren in Ottawa; Editing by Jonathan Oatis