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Cody Bergerud, formerly a medic with the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, slipped into Syria through the northeast after a volunteer stint at a Turkish refugee camp.

Uygar Onder Simsek/The Globe and Mail

When Cody Bergerud left Saltspring Island for northern Syria, he didn't tell anyone where he was going.

"It just made things easier," he says. No fights with family. No awkward conversations with the authorities, at least until he came back.

Unlike other Canadians who have travelled to the region, Mr. Bergerud wasn't driven by the thought of taking up arms for or against the terrorist group the Islamic State. His is not that kind of story.

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The University of Victoria political philosophy student was in northern Syria to witness what he calls a social revolution. Amid the country's years-long civil war, the Kurdish population in the north has gained a level of autonomy. A website for the Lions of Rojava, which is aligned with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), describes its society's three principles as direct democracy, gender equity and sustainability – all of which it pursues while within firing range of the Islamic State.

Mr. Bergerud, 26, went to Rojava to observe. He arrived in Syria in March, slipping into the country through the northeast after a 2-1/2-week stint as a volunteer at a Turkish refugee camp. While at the camp, Mr. Bergerud says he primarily helped on the construction side. He also took time to play with some of the children.

The Canadian government would prefer people such as Mr. Bergerud not drop into Syria's war zone. Global Affairs Canada, in a statement, said the federal government's ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is severely limited.

"Global Affairs Canada also advises against all travel to Syria due to ongoing conflict. Commercial means to leave Syria are extremely limited," it wrote.

"Canadians travelling to Syria, including those who travel there to join local conflicts, do so at their own personal risk."

Mr. Bergerud said getting into Syria itself was fairly simple.

"I made friends, and they were able to connect me with people who got me across the border," he said. "They pick out a good spot and you kind of just run over the border. The whole process takes three to five minutes."

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Mr. Bergerud met five or six Canadians while he was in Rojava. The youngest was 24, while the oldest was 67.

He never met John Robert Gallagher, who was killed in Syria last month fighting the Islamic State with the YPG.

Mr. Bergerud said his most anxious moment was the first time he saw the heavily fortified front lines. Suddenly, the fight was very real. There were also moments when the gunfire seemed especially close, even if it wasn't.

"Sometimes the sound of gunfire would reflect … so it would sound like gunfire is very close to you but it's actually far away and it's just the sound waves that are making it seem close," he said.

Mr. Bergerud had some basic medical training – first aid and CPR – and decided to volunteer as a medic. There was, however, some confusion. Since he was from the West, it had been assumed he was in Rojava to fight with the YPG. He explained to the group that that was not his intention.

Volunteering as a medic was not easy. Mr. Bergerud said he saw fighters who were dead, or close to it.

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"It's like seeing things through a window even though you were there. At the same time, actual people were coming who needed to be saved, so you didn't really have time to think about it," he said.

André Gerolymatos, a security expert and one of the co-ordinators of the terrorism, risk and security studies program at Simon Fraser University, said Mr. Bergerud's decision to travel to Syria could be viewed as "reckless," given the possibility of him being captured. However, he noted Mr. Bergerud did not travel to the region to harm anyone.

Dr. Gerolymatos said Kurdish forces want to show the world they're capable of dealing with the Islamic State.

Mr. Bergerud returned to British Columbia in late August. He says he was interviewed by border officials for about four hours after he landed.

"With me, it was very unorthodox. I had gone by myself; I initially wasn't connected to any organization. The only organization I met was when I was there. So I didn't preplan anything, I just winged the whole thing and that was very surprising," he said. "So they wanted a travel itinerary, how I got there."

There were some questions about which side of the conflict he was on. Mr. Bergerud said he was later visited by an RCMP officer, though he believes he was able to allay any concerns.

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An RCMP spokesperson said, for privacy reasons, the force can't confirm whether a person has been interviewed by police.

The Canada Border Services Agency declined to comment for this story.

Mr. Bergerud said he left Rojava because he thought he could do more good from the outside for now, particularly due to limitations on resources and infrastructure in the region.

"I wanted to continue to give back to the communities and work on an infrastructure project, like, say, a public library," he said. "I figured it would be a better use of my time to come back and organize, and talk about my experiences, and get people interested in doing resource drives."

He said he does plan to go back before long.

Mr. Bergerud said he has given a couple of talks at local bookstores and hopes to hold more. He said he's currently taking a break from his studies to focus on activism, including helping to bring a Syrian family to Canada as refugees.

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