Syrian refugees receive warm Belfast welcome as they arrive in Northern Ireland
After years of living in fear, 51 Syrian refugees landed safely in Belfast yesterday, ready to begin their new lives.
The 10 families were flown more than 2,400 miles from Beirut as part of the UK's vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. They landed at Belfast International Airport after 2.30pm.
All 11 children in the group are aged five and under, and many of them have lived outside the makeshift refugee camps in Lebanon where thousands settled after fleeing violence.
After the flight, they were taken by bus to a welcome centre in Belfast where they were greeted with gifts and cards made by local schoolchildren.
Volunteers who have been preparing for their arrival for weeks said they had been overwhelmed by donations from the public.
The refugees will stay at the secret location for a few days before they are rehoused in temporary accommodation for an initial period of six months. They will then be placed in permanent homes and helped to settle into their new lives, with each family assigned a key worker and offered translation support. The families, which include a baby who is just months old, will also be granted five years' humanitarian protection.
Another group is expected to arrive in the north west in the new year.
Politicians from across Northern Ireland passed on messages of support to the families yesterday.
First Minister Peter Robinson said: "I welcome each of the Syrian families to Northern Ireland and hope that they will quickly feel safe and secure in their new home.
"I have no doubt the people of Northern Ireland will extend a very warm hand of friendship, charity and generosity to our new friends and families.
"The people of Northern Ireland do not just offer somewhere to live but also the promise of a future full of hope."
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness added: "I welcome all the Syrian families to the north of Ireland. Rest assured, our people will open their arms and hearts to all who arrive here.
"They have been forced to leave the place they call home due to the persecution and pain being inflicted upon them in their homeland.
"We shall make every effort to help them settle quickly here and feel as content as possible in their new environment.
"I appeal to all our people to act kindly and compassionately and help rebuild and restore their faith in humanity."
Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey said: "I have been impressed by the commitment of staff in my department to work with others and put in place the necessary arrangements to welcome to refugees to Northern Ireland and to help them settle here as quickly as possible."
"The families who will be travelling to Northern Ireland are very much in need and we have a responsibility to reach out the hand of friendship and help them adjust to a new life."
Earlier this month, a group calling itself the Protestant Coalition organised a protest in Belfast city centre to demonstrate against the arrival of the Syrians.
However, only around 25 people turned up and participants were significantly outnumbered by a counter-demonstration organised by people voicing a message of welcome.