It was 10 p.m. and -12 C as the group of 14 Syrian refugees touched down in their new home.
The sky was dark and speckled with fresh falling snow as the city’s first wave of arrivals, weary-eyed but smiling, made their way into the airport after the flight from Toronto.
A crowd of people, holding Arabic and English welcome signs, were waiting to greet them with applause and song. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged before the group was ushered into another room to be briefed on their surroundings by Mayor Don Atchison, ministers Jeremy Harrison and Don Morgan, and other officials.
Two families of five and another of four made up the group. They ranged in age from the infant in her mother’s arms to the elderly woman bundled in scarves and a heavy jacket for the drive home.
“They feel very very happy for this welcoming,” said Open Door Society settlement counsellor Zainab Al-Musawi, who spoke on behalf of the refugees because none of them know English. “They saw the weather, it’s very different here, but they said ‘with this warm welcoming, it doesn’t matter. We are very happy.'”
The families are the first of an estimated 850 Syrians who will, on mass, be settled in Saskatchewan in the coming months as part of the federal government’s promise to accept 25,000 refugees. The exact time frame within which all the refugees will arrive is still under question.
One family of five and the family of four were privately sponsored while the third family is funded through tax dollars.
“We had no idea what they looked like so we just had a sign and that moment when we realized it was them was pretty special,” said Eman Demmans who represents a group of friends who sponsored a family. “It’s going to be kind of bittersweet for them, so we’re trying to give them space but also be as supportive as possible.”
She said they have arranged an apartment for the family.
Meanwhile, Al-Musawi said the publicly funded family will stay in a temporary home until permanent accommodations are found. On Sunday they will begin the process of signing documents, setting up bank accounts and getting social insurance numbers.
At the airport, Rashid Ahmed and his family came to show support. They sang a welcome song that was sung to the Islamic prophet Muhammad as he entered Medina.
As Ahmadiyya Muslim refugees from Pakistan, he said they understand what the new families are going through, including the pain of leaving other loved ones behind.
“I know the feeling of the refugees because my family was persecuted and they are in a dangerous situation right now,” Ahmed said, fighting back tears.
He said coming to Canada was the best decision for the families.
“Canada is like heaven for them and people are really friendly so talk with them,” he said.
Stepping outside, the night was quiet except for the families’ shivers as they rush to the waiting warm cars and adjust to their new home’s environment.