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Airlifts, arrivals and anticipation:
Canada welcomes refugees

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne posing with the crowd preparing to welcome the first planeload of Syrian refugees to land in Toronto last week.
Photographer: Hassan Masri.

A grown man runs into the arms of the father he hasn't seen in a decade. Little girls watch, wide-eyed, as the Prime Minister of Canada fits them for puffy new winter jackets.  Sponsor groups, cabinet ministers, border guards and volunteers pack the airport arrivals area, armed with smiles to welcome the most anticipated travellers of the year.

These were the scenes as the biggest wave of Syrian refugees so far arrived in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver last week, tangible proof that the federal government's airlift was truly under way after two months of hectic planning, logistics and anticipation. Here in Ottawa, refugees from Syria have begun quietly arriving in small groups, while the city gets ready for bigger numbers to come.

Refugee 613 is privileged to have a front-row seat for the outpouring of energy, heart and skill Ottawa is putting into being prepared. We are a grassroots coalition of settlement, sponsorship, health, housing and other agencies and volunteers. Our mission is to coordinate efforts, communicate news and issues and inspire Ottawa to be a more welcoming community. In the coming days this new blog will bring you updates on our activities and information on how to donate, volunteer, sponsor and more, but first we thought we'd launch with a look at what we know — and don't know — about refugee arrivals in Ottawa.

We know Ottawa is expected to receive around 160 Syrian refugees by the end of December, slightly more than double the number of refugees who resettle here in an average month. That's an uptick, for sure, but hardly a massive influx and nothing like the big numbers headed to the Greater Toronto Area or Montreal.

We don't know how many refugees we can expect to come to Ottawa between Dec. 31 and Feb. 29, the second deadline of the airlift. One commonly cited figure is 800, an estimate based on previous models of refugee distribution across Canada. Federal officials briefing the settlement sector have in the past estimated we might receive approximately 1,400 government-assisted refugees by the end of 2016.

We know that the conflicting information and fluctuating figures are frustrating for the public, for our partners and even for the officials at the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. They are working around the clock to process and transport as many refugees as possible within a fluid and chaotic environment involving multiple agencies, several national governments and tens of thousands of people. Circumstances change on a daily, almost hourly, basis and the plan for one day may be ancient history the next.

We don't know exactly how many refugees will be privately sponsored and how many will be sponsored by the government. The original announcements indicated that most of the refugees arriving in the capital in 2015 would be privately sponsored, but federal officials now say the majority will be government-assisted refugees.

We know that government-assisted refugees will be received by settlement workers from the Catholic Centre for Immigrants. They will stay at Sophia House, a residential facility where they will receive food and clothes and guidance to start their new life here. There is plenty of room for them at Sophia House, and most of them will have moved on to longer-term housing by the time the Catholic Centre for Immigrants welcomes much larger numbers in January and February. If numbers demand it, the Catholic Centre for Immigrants will open more satellite reception centres in locations it has identified elsewhere in the city.

We know the airlift refugees will arrive on planes landing in Toronto or Montreal and will be transferred to Ottawa in small groups. This means we likely won't have big welcome events at the airport, at least until larger numbers of government-assisted refugees begin to arrive.

We know that privately sponsored refugees will be welcomed by their sponsor group and taken to their new, temporary homes until it's time to go to a permanent one.

We know that many private sponsorship groups are eager to keep the refugees' arrival low key in an effort to avoid subjecting them to overwhelming media interest. At Refugee 613 our priority is to meet the needs of refugees and their sponsors and we will work to respect their wishes.

We know that all of the arriving refugees will be permanent residents of Canada by the time they leave the airport, armed with SIN numbers and documents outlining their health coverage (including OHIP registration and Interim Federal Health Plan benefits).

We also know that whoever comes and whenever they arrive, Ottawa is ready. We have sponsors and a settlement sector ready to receive them, a robust health network ready to treat them, and countless volunteers and other community members eager to show a warm welcome.

Come back and visit us here in the coming days for updates on all those activities. We'll tell you what Ottawa is doing to prepare, we'll introduce you to the people working behind the scenes —  and so much more!