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Afra Jalabi, an SNC member poses in her home in suburb of Montreal, Feb. 13, 2012. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Afra Jalabi, an SNC member poses in her home in suburb of Montreal, Feb. 13, 2012. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Syrian-Canadians demanding more from Ottawa Add to ...

Through private meetings with ministers, rallies online and on the streets, through fundraisers pooling hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, the Syrian-Canadian community has been an active player in Syria’s resistance movement.

But as the violence escalates and spreads, many of the more than 30,000 Canadians who trace their lineage to Syria are calling on the government to act: It’s one thing to pay lip service to Syria’s opposition, they contend; but it’s time for Ottawa to put its money – and its might on the international stage – where its mouth is.

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“They have been morally supportive. They can still do more,” said Afra Jalabi, an activist in Montreal and a member of the Syrian National Council, a coalition acting as an umbrella group for opponents of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “This regime does not respond to sanctions. … Assad has to get the message that the world has given up on his regime completely.”

Grainy YouTube footage of tanks, mortars and their gruesome impact has galvanized Canada’s Syrian-Canadian community, and other Arab-Canadian groups have rallied around them. Events across Ontario and Quebec in the past few weeks have raised upwards of $250,000. Now the challenge for Human Concern International, a group channelling much of the aid, is how to put it to use.

In Montreal, home to almost 43 per cent of the Syrian-Canadian population, the ongoing violence thousands of kilometres away has been a call to arms.

Last Saturday, a fundraiser at a Montreal school netted more than $100,000; another yesterday brought in close to $30,000, says Faisal Alazem, who with a network of fellow activists is helping to raise awareness in any way he can – through rallies outside embassies, information booths on campuses and even public boycotts of business owners thought to be cozy with the al-Assad regime.

The challenge, Mr. Alazem said, is ensuring the money pouring in meets its target. Some Montreal-based fundraisers have set up a network of bank deposits accessible to activists in Syria.

For months, Osama Kadi, president of the Syrian Canadian Council, has lived in a state of dread as he tries to keep tabs on his family in Aleppo. While much of the violence has targeted the city of Homs, last weekend it struck much closer to home. A pair of car bombs blew out the windows in his relatives’ house, sending glass flying and children into a state of panic. The Syrian government has blamed the bombings on opposition “terrorists;” Mr. Kadi isn’t so sure.

What weighs on him, however, is the memory of a close childhood friend – a doctor and physician who disappeared last April.

“He was interrogated on Wednesday; on Thursday, they told his family he will be back. … On Friday, they found his body. His body was smashed, his eyes pulled out. It’s something beyond, beyond, beyond any imagination,” Mr. Kadi said.

“We cannot really wait forever. They need some type of help.”

For the past few months, Ottawa has been vocal in its condemnation of the al-Assad government. But the federal government has resisted pressure to expel Syria’s ambassador, and continues to maintain its own diplomatic presence in Damascus and Aleppo.

Joseph Lavoie, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said Canada “has led the way in applying pressure on the Assad regime with some of the toughest sanctions in the world. Minister Baird raised this issue with his counterpart in Beijing and will continue to stand up for Canadian values like respect for human rights and respect for the rule of law.”

Mr. Lavoie noted Canada has only "core" staff remaining in its Damascus embassy, but said "no decision has been made" about diplomatic personnel still there.

As for military intervention in Syria, Canada has no intention to move in that direction without more international consensus.

"Minister Baird has previously noted that we can't even get a condemnation of the Assad regime's violence from the UN Security Council," Mr. Lavoie said. "At this point, it is unrealistic to expect the UN Security Council to support anything of the kind. He has also said that Canada will take every diplomatic step possible."

While Ottawa resident and Syrian National Council member Hisham Marwah appreciates the support, he’s hoping for something a little more concrete.

“I don’t want Harper to do something against his plan. Syria is Syria and Canada is Canada. But for us, as Syrian-Canadians, we really would like our Prime Minister to do what he can for us,” Mr. Marwah said in a telephone interview from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He is travelling this week for talks with other opposition members on Syria’s future.

“The situation is going fast. Maybe faster than what we were expecting.”

The Syrian National Council has been pushing for formal recognition from the Arab League and other states – Canada included. While Ottawa has said it is “supportive” of the council's outreach efforts, it has stopped short of official recognition of the group as a government-in-exile.

Sawsan Habbal doesn't see things quite the same way. As Syria's honorary consul to British Columbia, the Damascus-born, Vancouver-based lawyer is one of the Assad-friendly diplomats opposition supporters want Ottawa to expel.

She says she's speaking for herself, and other Syrian-Canadians in B.C., when she urges Ottawa to re-open the consular section of its Damascus embassy.

"The Canadian government, who is leading in combating international terrorism, should seriously consider the danger of the situation in Syria," she wrote in an e-mail. "The international community, and the Canadian government ... should be united to support Syria, in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict by implementing an immediate 'cease fire' by all parties."





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SERIOUS NUMBERS

More than 5,400 people were killed last year.

Tens of thousands of people, including children, have been arrested.

More than 18,000 people are said to have been arbitrarily detained and thousands more are reported missing.

An estimated 25,000 people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

More than 70,000 people are internally displaced.

Associated Press

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