It has been difficult to ignore the overwhelming international coverage of Canada’s acceptance of Syrian refugees over the past couple of weeks. From local and national news outlets in Canada, to New York Times editorials and coverage from around the world, Canada has been receiving praise and admiration for its commitment to provide a safe haven for refugees escaping their war-torn homes.
Although many Syrians have been steadily coming into the country since the beginning of the civil war, the first group of refugees on a Canadian government-sponsored military plane left Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport for Toronto on Thurs., Dec. 10. They were greeted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn with warm embraces and promises of a better, safer life.
Shortly after Trudeau took office in early November, he delivered on his election promise of implementing a systematic resettlement program—one that now aims to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by February.
More than half of the Syrians that arrived that day were Syrian-Armenians—a result of a massive undertaking by the Armenian community of Toronto to secure private sponsorships among the community. So far, more than 1,300 Syrian refugees have been approved through the program, which does not require that either the sponsor or refugee have an Armenian background; more than 350 have already arrived, and close to 1,000 are expected to arrive in Toronto by the end of February.
That day, the newly arrived Syrian Armenians were also met with hundreds of Canadian Armenians at the Armenian Community Center of Toronto, where much of their paperwork was processed and filed, and where they would be able to continue the community life they left behind in Syria.
Canada’s recent, warm welcoming of Syrian refugees has been regarded as a moral example for the rest of the world. What many have failed to realize, though, is that the roots of the country’s international humanitarian tradition were formed during the Armenian Genocide.
Between 1923-32, 109 boys (known as the Georgetown Boys) and 40 girls—all orphans of the Armenian Genocide—were brought to Canada in what became known as “Canada’s Noble Experiment,” the country’s first humanitarian act on an international scale. A century ago, the efforts of the Canadian government to provide a safe haven for genocide orphans would not have been possible without the hard work of the Armenian community and individual sponsors, such as Aris Alexanian, who helped bring the orphans over to Canada, supervised their education, and helped place them with families. Much is the same today.
While the Canadian government’s considerable undertaking to provide refuge for the people of Syria is commendable and should be taken as an example for other countries, it is also important not to lose sight of the determination and diligence the Armenian community of Toronto in making this happen. The Canadian government does not provide any funding to the project; rather, members of the Armenian Community Center of Toronto privately sponsor newcomers, often making room in their own homes to people they have not previously met.
Canada’s tradition of helping those in need, no matter which part of the world they may come from, is entrenched and forever connected to the Armenian people and the history of the Armenian Genocide. Today, 100 years after the one of the bloodiest chapters of the 20th century, we must thank Canada once again for its mission to be a moral beacon in the Syrian crisis, and we must recognize the hard work of an Armenian community thousands of miles removed from Syria.
Welcome to Canada, brothers and sisters. Your new home is one that cares not only for its own people, but for people around the world. And the Armenian community here will surely accept you with open arms.