OTTAWA - Twenty-four Haitian orphans left their shattered country Sunday to embark on new lives in Canada, stepping off a plane into the crisp early morning Ottawa air and into the warm embraces of their new parents.
The first group of Haitian adoptees to arrive in Canada, the children were brought to Port-au-Prince's airport in the wee hours of Sunday and they were swaddled in compassion every step of the way in their journey.
From the workers who carried the little wide-eyed bundles on a bus from the Canadian Embassy to the airport, to the Air Canada volunteers who gently stroked their bellies to help them sleep on the plane, the children were the recipients of a tremendous outpouring of care - before they even reached their anxious parents.
"When I seen that plane land, I was overwhelmed," said Gerry Naugler, the proud new father of Dakemsia, 10, and Deulando, 4.
"When I seen the children coming off, I felt so relieved for all the Canadian families who were reunited in there this morning."
On the way to her new country, though Dakemsia was intently watching an in-flight movie, she said she was looking forward to being in Ca-NAH-da.
"I'm not scared," she said, matter-of-factly. "I'm excited."
The Air Canada Airbus A-330 touched down just before 7 a.m. and the children, weary from the overnight trek and many wearing little more than sandals, shorts and T-shirts, were wrapped in blankets and whisked inside to greet their new families.
Several of the older children flashed bright white smiles at the cameras as they peered above their blankets.
The arrival marks the start of a new life for the children who have not only survived the deaths of their parents but the near-destruction of their country.
"Orphan kids are, we find, very, very resilient and it just impresses me so much how much they can take and withstand," said Peter Deklerk, who accompanied four children from the Canadian Embassy. "The resiliency of these kids is just amazing."
The federal government took steps last week to fast track adoptions already in the works before this month's earthquake in Haiti.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said officials were expecting upwards of 50 kids on the flight, but there were logistical and orphanage staff problems on the ground in Haiti.
There are 90 children already cleared to come to Canada, and another 90 being fast-tracked through the immigration system.
He said the government hopes to have the vast majority of children in Canada within a few days.
"There are issues around human trafficking," he said.
"We are only going to facilitate the adoption of children where the relevant provincial child welfare agency has clearly indicated to us that the parents are qualified... We're not going to rush if there is not such approval because we need to be 100 per cent sure that kids are coming to qualified adoptive families."
Sunday's arrival of the very precious cargo marked the end of a three-and-a-half-year adoption process for Naugler, from Moncton, N.B. He said his two biological children have also been excited to meet their new siblings.
"I'm looking forward to my family just to be complete," he said, his voice choked with emotion.
Jean Robert Vavar, from Montreal, waited three years for his adopted son, 14-year-old Jordan Noel, to come to Canada to join six other children Vavar and his wife have. It was an emotional moment to finally see his new son alive, after all he has been through.
"It's the best day for me and my family," Vavar said.
The flight also brought more than 100 evacuees, who burst into applause as the plane landed in Ottawa.
The younger children - several are under two years old - simply curled up on volunteers' laps and slept through their first airplane flight. But the older ones went right for the earphones and began excitedly flipping through options on the in-flight entertainment screens in front of them.
Jessica, 9, took out her earphones long enough to give her feelings on Canada ("It's cool") and that she and her sister - Sarah, 4 - are prepared for the comparatively chilly temperatures in B.C., where they will live.
Two of the children had to be taken to hospital with fevers and gastroenteritis symptoms, said Dr. Guy Riendau, who treated them on the flight.
They would likely be released from hospital later Sunday, as they may even just need some hydration, said Riendau.
"Most of them were all right," he said.
"Some of them had thrown up and had a couple episodes of diarrhea."
Of course, Riendau added, some of the kids threw up because they just ate too much.