Note to world leaders: This is how to welcome refugees

Canada welcomes a small group of refugees but its telegenic new PM puts on a big show.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets refugees fleeing the Syria, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, in Toronto [AP]
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets refugees fleeing Syria, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, Toronto [AP]

They were hardly the poor, huddled masses Canadians might have expected.

In fact, the 163 privately sponsored Syrian refugees from Lebanon who landed in Toronto late last Thursday looked less bedraggled and besieged than other Canadians do after a long overseas flight.

But then, most Canadians don’t travel in government jets, don’t get the red carpet treatment, don’t bypass line-ups for baggage and border clearance – and don’t get greeted by their recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

These refugees did not arrive like the tens of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” did in the 1970s, or any other group of terror-fleeing refugees at other times in Canadian history.

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“This is a wonderful night where we get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada’s all about, but we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations,” Trudeau said.

“Tonight, they step off the plane as refugees. But they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada, with social insurance numbers, with health cards, and with an opportunity to become full Canadians.”

Personal welcome

Two days later, another planeload of 161 privately sponsored Syrian refugees landing in Montreal barely made national news, let alone international headlines. That was despite a personal welcome by Philippe Couillard, the Quebec premier, John McCallum, the federal immigration minister, and Denis Coderre, Montreal’s mayor.

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Would the newcomers’ landing at Toronto’s Pearson International – which was named after another Liberal prime minister – have made world news had Trudeau not been there with his trademark baby-kisses, warm hugs and selfies?

Would the newcomers’ landing at Toronto’s Pearson International – which was named for another Liberal prime minister – have made world news had Trudeau not been there… 


Trudeau, the telegenic son of Pierre Trudeau, arguably Canada’s most popular prime minister of the 20th century, was made for the internet age. Young, handsome and to the official manor-born, he is backed by a top-flight team of political strategists who know how to maximise media – new, old, and social – to sway public opinion and perceptions.

This would explain why the trending hashtag #WelcomeRefugees, coined by the government itself, now appears on its immigration and citizenship ministry website. (Not surprisingly, that site has been radically overhauled since the refugee-hostile Stephen Harper Conservatives’ nine-year reign ended.)

And so heart-warming images of Trudeau zipping the new arrivals into bulky winter coats hit TV, tablet and telephone screens everywhere. They were splashed on the pages of the world’s newspapers, from the Times of India to Britain’s Independent. They were tweeted and they were facebooked. They became the perfect Christmas story.

In the US, The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times published reports and editorials accusing the US of not measuring up to its northern neighbour’s compassion.

They pointed out how more than half of the states’ governors want to keep their borders closed and how the leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has promised, should he win the White House, to “shut down” Muslim immigration and register all US-based Muslims.

Anti-refugee rhetoric in the US

Indeed, the anti-refugee rhetoric in the US has reached such a hysterical level that more than one-third of all Americans approve of Trump’s proposed ban. One armed vigilante-type group known as the “Three Percenters” even vows to “interfere” with Muslims “threatening to take over” the US.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets refugees fleeing from Syria, as they arrive at Pearson International airport, in Toronto [AP] 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets refugees fleeing from Syria, as they arrive at Pearson International airport, in Toronto [AP] 

“…Canada’s generosity – and Mr Trudeau’s personal warmth and leadership – can serve as a beacon for others,” a New York Times editorial headlined Canada’s Warm Embrace of Refugees maintained. “[I]t puts to shame the callous and irresponsible behaviour of the American governors and presidential candidates who have argued that the United States, for the sake of its security, must shut its doors to all Syrian refugees.”

Others were not so genteel.

“US politics right now feels like a clown show of ventriloquised garbage bags yelling dangerous nonsense about Muslims and the Second Amendment,” the men’s magazine GQ taunted. “But just north of the border … Trudeau is showing just how far leadership traits like compassion and open-mindedness can go toward endearing yourself to your countrymen. Who would have thought?”

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Right now, Trudeau’s approval ratings stand at 57 percent, higher than when his Liberal party swept to power on October 19. Nearly three-quarters of all Canadians believe he has the makings of a good leader.


He clearly has an effect. Canadian business has delivered millions in sponsorships, housing, furnishings and even mobile phones. Church and community groups, as well as individuals, have pledged to sponsor and support one newcomer. One chief executive is personally committed to bringing in 50 families at a cost of more than $1m.

Coming around

Judging by the reception for the first wave of refugees, largely Armenian-Syrian families with relatives in the country, Canadians who had concerns about security, especially following last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, will be reassured.

They’re already coming around.

In mid-November, polls showed that opposition to Trudeau’s refugee resettlement plan – 25,000 are expect to arrive by the end of February 2016 – was as high as 60 percent. Last week, two days before the first planeload, Canadians were split, with those saying they welcome refugees slightly outnumbering those who would not.

True, other polls show that Canadians are worried that the influx will strain the already hard-pressed healthcare system as well as other social services. This nation of immigrants and refugees also feels that Syrian refugees are getting preferential treatment over other groups.

But their faith and pride in their country has been restored. As Trudeau himself has repeatedly proclaimed, “Canada is back.”

Canadians, new and old, have left the dark Harper decade behind and are once again charting a familiar course, one where the world’s weary and war-sick are welcomed.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.