On December 10 last year, as the first planeload of Syrian refugees arrived at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and was greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the official welcoming party that accompanied him featured someone who himself had landed in Canada 43 years earlier as a refugee.
That’s Arif Virani, freshman member of Parliament from the Toronto constituency of Parkdale-High Park, who was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister for citizenship, immigration and refugees in November, and is now assisting his senior cabinet colleague in what is the most high-profile undertaking of the Trudeau regime - resettling 25,000 refugees by the end of February.
“What’s nice about the specific portfolio that’s been given to me is that I’m now the parliamentary secretary to the minister while we’re in the middle of one of the biggest refugee resettlement projects that we’ve undertaken in the country’s history. I’m squarely integrated in that role and I’m sort of working with the minister directly,” Virani said in an interview at his office in Toronto.
Watch: A family dedicated to the cause of refugee welfare
1972 was the year Ugandan dictator Idi Amin banished those of Asian origin, mostly Indians, from the African country, and Virani’s parents, along with his then four-year-old sister and the toddler arrived at Montreal’s Dorval airport.
He said of his recent experience at the airport (and he’s returned since to greet more batches at the arrival hall): “It was significant for me to see so many kids, eight-months-old, ten-months-old, a year, the exact same age I was when I arrived, and thinking about what the future holds for them. That gave me some cause to reflect on my journey.”
It’s also an assignment that is “very very significant” to his refugee parents.
“They’re extremely proud that I’m working on this project and all of my understanding of what transpired when we arrived in Montreal in 1972 has been told to me - the reception we received, the hospitality of the people of Quebec.”
There’s also the recollection of having been housed at YMCA in Montreal, one that resonates in the current context of the Canadian government scrambling for temporary lodgings for the new immigrants.
The logistics have been challenging, most particularly when it comes to security screening of the incoming immigrants, given the anxiety over infiltration by Islamic State elements that has been rife (and accentuated since the Paris terror attacks). Unlike those that entered Europe, the security vetting is being undertaken at the “frontend”, in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Virani said of that multi-stage system: “We’ve ensured all of the requisite security qualifications and screens are met. People are screened initially, they then go through a 45-minute to one-hour interview. Fingerprint analysis, iris scans and full biometric data is compiled on the individual.
“We then run all of that data through a Canadian and American database, which has more than assuaged any of the concerns of our American allies. When they board the plane, they are checked once again. When they arrive, they are verified once more.”
It’s a fairly onerous task as 500 federal personnel have been deployed in places like Amman and Beirut and process nearly 800 daily claims.
There is hope that such measures are allaying any residual fears. “We’re making sure that security threats are not being accepted into the country,” Virani asserted.
Virani’s roots are in Ahmedabad, though he was born in Kampala. This human rights lawyer has had the opportunity to work both in that city and New Delhi. And in recent years, those ties have strengthened since his wife is from Kanpur.
“My first son, when he was born, we took him there when he was nine-months-old and he first learnt to crawl in Kanpur at his nanima’s childhood home,” Virani said. A cricket fan, he watched some Delhi Daredevils games at the Ferozshah Kotla in 2008, the inaugural year of the Indian Premier League.
While he tended to his two sons over the holiday season, on December 31, his elder son’s fifth birthday, Virani took his child along to the airport as another group of Syrian immigrants arrived. He wanted that to be an experience and a “life lesson”.