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For one MP, arrival of Syrian refugees Thursday a moment for personal reflection

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Arif Virani speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 on efforts efforts by labour, business, faith and community groups to support Syrian refugee resettlement. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
December 10, 2015 - 2:30 PM

OTTAWA - In 1972, Toronto MP Arif Virani's family stepped off a plane into a cold October day in Montreal with nothing more than two suitcases.

A Canadian government plane had been sent to Uganda to help rescue some of the thousands of people of Asian origin the county's president had expelled.

His parents, his older sister and he — only 10 months old at the time — were on board.

Virani, now parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration, says he'll be thinking of that moment as he awaits the arrival of 163 Syrians on the first government plane sent to rescue people from the ongoing conflict in that country.

"When I'm there, if I encounter a mother with a small baby a little bit less than a year old, I'll pause for a moment to reflect on my own family's journey here," Virani said Thursday.

"But I will also take pride and hope in all of the wonderful opportunities in store for that young child, not just in terms of what our country has to offer her, but in terms of what she has to offer to our country."

Virani's first stop in October 1972 was the Montreal YMCA. His first winter clothes came from the Salvation Army.

He would go on to graduate from McGill University and the University of Toronto, becoming a lawyer and a Crown prosecutor in Ontario. He was elected the Liberal MP for Parkdale-High Park this fall, defeating longtime NDP MP Peggy Nash.

Some things have changed since 1972, he said.

Then, it's unlikely people would have considered the need for newly arrived Muslims to take a moment to pray to give thanks upon reaching their new country, he said.

Yet, public servants have made exactly those arrangements for the Syrians arriving in Toronto and Montreal, part of a suite of things they've prepared to help the newcomers ease into their new lives.

From school children who helped the immigration minister learn a few words of Arabic so he could say hello to the new arrivals, to businesses raising money and offering jobs to the Syrians, the resettlement program is truly a national project, Virani said.

Though, it was one with a tragic trigger.

While the Syrian crisis has raged since 2011, it took a photograph of a Syrian child who died as his family tried to escape by boat to spur the present outpouring of support.

"I'm a father of two little boys, you see that kind of photo and it stops you dead in your tracks, your heart goes up to your throat, you can't even speak when you see that kind of photo," he said.

"It's unfortunate that world crises, whether they are famines or refugee crises, require these kinds of triggers, but that's life."

While the Liberals had promised back in March to resettle 25,000 Syrians, that pledge took on new urgency after the photo appeared during the federal election.

What Canadians felt should be the right response to the Syrian refugee crisis became an unexpected campaign issue. The Tories were promising 10,000 more spaces over four years; the Liberals said they'd make it happen by Dec. 31.

That deadline was shelved after the Liberals won government but their plan is still rolling out. By year end, the Liberals promise 10,000 Syrians will be in Canada with the private sponsors supporting them and then a further 15,000 supported by government will be here by February.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that all of our humanitarian national effort to welcome Syrian refugees will also bring to our country the long term benefits that will manifest in the years to come," Virani said.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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