TORONTO – The last time Christine Youssef saw her cousins, they were in Damascus, and civil war hadn’t yet broken out in Syria.
That war has forced thousands of Syrians to seek refuge in Canada, including Youssef’s five cousins, who arrived on the first Canadian government airlift late Thursday.
She said it’s the first time the cousins — who are between 20 and 28 years old — have flown on an airplane.
By the end of the month, Youssef said another 19 of her relatives will have arrived in Canada as part of the federal government’s plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by February.
All of them will be staying with her in east-end Toronto.
Youssef said refugee sponsors were told to wait until Friday morning to meet the new arrivals, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to see them earlier, even if it meant waiting for hours at their hotel.
“We’re not going to sleep until they get here,” she said outside a Travelodge hotel near Pearson International Airport around 2 a.m.
“I was very upset knowing that I couldn’t be able to see them at the airport, to welcome them, for them to see me right away, I was very upset about that. But I do recognize Canada’s high measure of security, for them to be safe.”
Buses ferrying refugees began pulling up to the hotel shortly after 3 a.m. but Youssef didn’t immediately spot her relatives.
Leaving Syria has been difficult for the family, who survived multiple bombings before fleeing to Lebanon, Youssef said. Once in Beirut, they struggled to find work, she added.
They applied for refugee status in January and learned Monday that they would be on the first government-arranged flight, she said.
“They cried when they left their family, for about two minutes,” she said. Still, “they’re excited, they’re ready.”
Their first full day in their new country will end on a typically Canadian note: a Raptors game in Toronto, added Youssef.
“I’m going to show them the Canadian way — I’m going to make them Canadian.”