Ten years have passed since the Arab Spring first brought calls for the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and yet the country continues to be mired in a bloody civil war, the reverberations of which sent 6.6 million Syrians, or almost one-third of the country’s prewar population, to seek refuge abroad.
Of those, more than 83,000 have settled in Canada since 2015 after fleeing Syria because of a diverse set of circumstances. Some had their homes and villages destroyed by fighting, while others sought asylum after speaking out against the regime of Mr. al-Assad. Still others escaped or were survivors of the genocidal brutality of the Islamic State.
The jihadist group, which at its peak in 2015 controlled a significant portion of territory in northern Syria and Iraq, deployed brutal tactics that shocked the world and drew in Western militaries, including Canada’s. In addition to targeting a broad swath of the Syrian population, the Islamic State targeted and enslaved an estimated 3,500 women and children of the Yazidi minority.
Though IS no longer officially controls territory, Mr. al-Assad remains in power, and millions of Syrians struggle to rebuild their lives thousands of kilometres away from a home they may never be able to return to. But they haven’t given up – while building networks within their new communities, many have continued to use their voices to speak out against Mr. al-Assad and share their experiences as an exiled diaspora.
The Globe and Mail spoke to four Syrians now living in Calgary, Toronto and Halifax about what the 10-year anniversary of the civil war means to them, from the standpoint of their new lives in Canada.
Noura al-Jizawi’s story
For Noura al-Jizawi, the uprising against the Assad regime was a dangerous gamble, but her participation was a risk she knew she had to take.
“We put everything we had into the revolution, even though we were told it would never work. But we did not have another option, because we didn’t have a future in Syria.”
Ms. al-Jizawi grew up in the city of Homs, and was 23 when the Arab Spring began in 2011.
“We knew we did not want to become like Bouazizi, the revolution was an attempt to build a better life, not an attempt to die,” she says, referencing the Tunisian man who self-immolated in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, triggering Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and North Africa.
The revolution catapulted Ms. al-Jizawi from her ordinary life as a graduate literature student into a leading member of the revolution. She organized protests, blogged and shared evidence of the Assad regime’s abuses, eventually rising through the ranks of the opposition to become the vice-president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
For her efforts, Ms. al-Jizawi was detained and tortured by security forces from late March to September, 2012. Her father and younger sister were detained as well, while her youngest brother was detained on three separate occasions.
She escaped to Turkey upon release and arrived in Canada in 2017 to study at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
After finishing her master’s degree, she now works for the school’s Citizen Lab, assisting its efforts to curtail cybersurveillance of activist groups around the world.
During the revolution, she began Start Point, a non-governmental organization to assist victims of gender-based and sexual violence.
The organization first focused on survivors of Syria’s state prisons and those affected by gender-based violence during the conflict, but has expanded to provide legal and psychosocial support to survivors of the Islamic State.
But support can only go so far. Syria needs to see an end to impunity for the crimes committed by the Assad regime, Ms. al-Jizawi says. “Syria will never have a stable peace without justice.”
Though the regime remains in place a decade later, buttressed by Russia and Iran, she’s hopeful that the younger generation, whether in Syria, in Canada or spread around the world, will continue to fight for a free Syria.
Her daughter, now three years old, is too young to understand yet how her mother spent “the critical years” of her young adulthood putting her life on the line for Syria. “I keep telling [her] about how beautiful the cities of Syria are, and the history of our country, and we read about famous great women in the Middle East.”
“We [Syrian activists] have a commitment not only for the cause, but also to talk with the younger generation, to share our experiences, to encourage them to speak, whether to criticize us, or criticize the uprising, and share their trauma and how they were affected by the conflict.
“We need to invest in the youth, even if they are exiled, to build a better future for Syria.”
Even within Syria, she sees signs on social media that the revolution has changed things for the better. “The revolution encouraged every Syrian to believe that they have a voice. Even among the people who remained in the regime control areas, even among the ones who support Assad.
“This is one of the great accomplishments, I think, of the revolution. People speak and believe in the power of their voices.”
Ismail and Hanane Mesto’s story
Ismail and Hanane Mesto’s life prior to the revolution was idyllic. The couple’s family, then of four, lived on a farm outside Afrin, in northwest Syria, surrounded by extended family.
“I miss taking care of our cows, and I miss the wildlife on our farm,” says the Mestos’ 17-year-old son, Ali.
But he understands why his family had to leave. In 2011, shortly after the revolution began, his parents sensed the growing instability would likely embolden extremist groups that would target Yazidi families like them.
When a Yazidi neighbour was slain, they decided to flee to Lebanon, and eventually made their way to Calgary in 2017 through the Canadian government’s Syrian resettlement program.
In 2013, while they were still in Lebanon, Hanane travelled back to Syria to visit her dying father one last time. Though Yazidi women do not wear hijabs, Hanane decided to wear one to conceal her identity while taking the bus into her village. At one point, militants she describes as Daesh (or Islamic State) boarded the bus and questioned everyone’s religious identity. When one woman described herself as Yazidi, she was pulled off the bus. Hanane was left to wonder what would have happened if she’d done the same.
Now, in Canada, the Mestos are trying to piece back a semblance of the life and the loved ones they left behind in Syria. They often call Hanane’s mother, who lives in a refugee camp near Afrin.
“In the future if Syria comes together, I want to go back to see, but right now grandma says she has no electricity, and the food is too expensive for her to buy,” Ali says.
Like Ali, Hanane and Ismail miss the central role farming played in their family’s life. Through the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, which leases a 30-acre piece of land in an industrial area, the family has begun to farm again.
At the farm, which community members have named the Land of Dreams, several Yazidi survivors work alongside other refugee families on plots laid out in the shape of an Indigenous medicine wheel, growing produce and collecting honey.
They grow vegetables native to both Syria and Alberta, and are learning from Blackfoot elders about Indigenous relationships to the land.
For the Mesto family, the farm is a reprieve – from the pandemic, from the stresses of newcomer life, and from the collective trauma of the Yazidi experience. Ten years later, they have returned to farming as a means to heal those wounds.
Khaled Abdulwahed’s story
Khaled Abdulwahed knew what he was doing when he took to the streets of Damascus to film the anti-Assad protests that broke out in 2011.
At just 17, Mr. Abdulwahed was enraged that the Assad regime continued to deny that protests had spread to the capital. He himself had protested, joining school friends and extended family members on the streets. Mr. Abdulwahed was determined to show the world that the people of Damascus were demanding change. “The camera was like a gun to the regime,” he said.
He sent his footage and photography around the world, to Western and Arab media outlets alike. With his identity concealed, he also spoke on television about the atrocities he witnessed, like the targeting of peaceful protestors at demonstrations.
But like Ms. al-Jizawi, his activism made him and his friends targets of the regime. Mr. Abdulwahed says a great-uncle was killed by the regime for protesting, and a cousin was tortured. He lost his best childhood friend, too. Overall, he estimates 25 people he knows went missing.
He escaped to Jordan and shortly thereafter arrived in Saudi Arabia to stay with relatives, and then to Lebanon before coming to Canada in 2016.
Though his parents and sisters later joined him, when Mr. Abdulwahed first arrived in Toronto, he did not know a single person. Now he says, “My friends call me the Syrian mayor of Toronto.’'
“As a new Canadian, I would like to say many thanks for bringing us in, they made a new life for me, a lifeline.”
Now apprenticing as an automotive technician, he spends his free time fundraising for Molham Volunteering Team, an NGO that raises money for Syrians living in refugee camps. He also helped to organize the Syrian Eagles, a soccer team in Toronto for Syrian refugees, proudly noting “we won the league last year.”
Volunteering, Mr. Abdulwahed says, helps him stay connected to his country and the revolution he left behind. “It’s good for me, it makes me feel like I’m still doing something.”
“The most difficult feeling is that we cannot return,” he adds. “I miss everything there. I miss my school, my room, my neighbourhood. It’s my home. But the regime destroyed everything. There’s nothing left to miss.”
Mr. Abdulwahed is determined to continue fighting for a free Syria, even from his new home, thousands of kilometres away.
“I hope one day to see our country on a path to freedom, and to see justice for our people, and prosecution of the [regime’s] criminals. Who kills kids with chemical weapons? We don’t really need anything else, just justice.”
Mohammad al-Masalma’s story
In a sense, Mohammad al-Masalma’s life has come full circle over the past 10 years.
In 2011, he was 24, living with his parents and siblings in the Syrian city of Dara’a, 13 kilometres north of the border from Jordan, and studying for a degree in English literature.
One morning in 2012, he and his friends encountered a family whose home had been destroyed the day prior by bombing in the countryside surrounding Dara’a. They decided to help the family find a new place to stay in their neighbourhood and, soon after, helped another family with a similar story.
Within the week, Mr. al-Masalma says, they had found housing for 25 other families, as more and more requests flooded in. “Of course, the government didn’t like that.”
He and his friends were arrested and jailed for a month in the spring of 2012, but their experience in detention only invigorated their determination to see Mr. al-Assad overthrown.
Mr. al-Masalma continued resettling displaced Syrians, began attending more demonstrations and, like Mr. Abdulwahed, used his photography skills to document the protests. Once more, he was arrested, and again detained for a month. Upon his release, his mother told him, “The third time will not be the charm,” referring to how, unlike some of his friends, Mr. al-Masalma had evaded being killed by the regime.
The family escaped to Jordan, where they lived in Zaatari refugee camp for a few weeks, before moving to the Jordanian capital of Amman.
In 2016, he and his brother received scholarships through World University Service of Canada to attend schools in Nova Scotia. He says his immigration interview and approval at the Canadian embassy in Amman was “one of the greatest milestones of my life.”
After graduating from Nova Scotia Community College, Mr. al-Masalma started a photography business, Mosy Photography, and found a full-time job uniquely suited to the skills he learned 10 years ago, in the streets of Dara’a.
As an orientation services co-ordinator for Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, Mr. al-Masalma helps refugees from all over the world, including Syria, start new lives in Halifax.
In his first year in Halifax, while struggling with homesickness, Mr. al-Masalma started an Arabic YouTube channel, sharing what he loved about his new life in Canada, and his adventures in the Maritimes.
Now, he has clients from the Arab world tell him they chose to come to Halifax because of the videos he made, sharing his enthusiasm for the Canadian experience.
“If one day I were to be able to go back to Syria, I would take my Canadian experience and copy/paste it into Syria, in terms of the democracy, the public parks, even the small parks in the cities.”
For now, he’s focused on helping new families discover these things for themselves.
“[My job] gives me a feeling of satisfaction that I get to deal with people who are going through the same experience I went through. I know their troubles, I know their stories. I love my job.”
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