Ed. Note: On Wednesday, Sept. 2, the world woke up to a startling image of a three-year old Syrian boy, lying face down and lifeless on the Turkish shore near the town of Bodrum. Over the next day, we learned that Alan Kurdi’s father attempted to bring his family to Greece through a perilous five-kilometer crossing in a small rubber dinghy, only to capsize and lose his wife and two sons to the Aegean Sea. Soon afterwards, we learned that relatives of the family had submitted a letter to the Government of Canada petitioning for help in bringing Kurdi family to Canada, after a previous refugee application had stalled in the bureaucracy.
Over the past week, Canada’s role in the burgeoning refugee crisis has become the subject of a national conversation, and the top issue in the final half of a federal election campaign. To help us understand the current state of Canada’s refugee system, I recently interviewed a friend who came from Syria to Canada more than three years ago as a refugee. He continues to interact with the refugee system today as he attempts to bring the rest of his family to Canada, and has experienced both sheer joy and incredible frustration in his quest to reunite his family.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll share his story in three parts, focusing on the events in Syria that led him to leave his home, his experience with the refugee system as he arrived in Canada and began building a new life here, and his reflections on what Canada can do better to help Syrian refugees. Out of respect for his privacy, we’ve decided to keep his identity secret and refer to him as “X” in this series of articles.
This is Part I of that series – a street-level view of how darkness fell over Syria and eventually forced X to leave his home. Note that this interview has been condensed for brevity.
Q: When did you decide to leave Syria?
A: I left Syria in 2012. Everyone in Syria has to go to the military for two and a half years. But if you study in university and have your papers, you can tell the government, “Sorry, I can’t go to the military this year”. This was the last year for me at the university. When the revolution in Syria happened, I had to pay a lot of money to someone just to get a new passport for me – more than 9,000 Syrian pounds, almost $200 – because he told me, “You have to go to the military, so I can’t give you the passport.” He said, “Please, give me the money, and I will try to do something about it,” and he did. And when I took the passport, I asked about the first airplane to go outside Syria.
Q: What was the situation like for you in the months leading up to this time?
A; Six months before I left, I moved to [the suburbs] of Damascus. This is where the big war started. Every Friday, after the people were done praying in the mosque, they would meet in street [near where I lived]. More than 100,000 people would march down the street to say “Bashar al-Assad, please leave this country. Let these people live one day without you. Let the children get a future without you.” Immediately, the government put soldiers around these people, just to scare the people away from coming to the centre of Damascus. Because if these people came to the centre, [Assad] would have to leave Syria. So he sent a lot of military. And he would bring everything, like tanks, bombs, to shoot everything. This is how it started [for me].
I was with my friend and cousin. We went down to the street. We said “Leave this country”, “You are a killer”, and other words in Arabic. Maybe 500 meters in front of us, there were all the soldiers, cars and police who would immediately shoot anyone approaching them. So on every Friday, in each neighbourhood there would be 3, 5, 10 people dead.
The next plan for the government was to prevent anybody from going to the mosque. So he sent the military on Thursdays and put two soldiers in every building [in these neighbourhoods]. So if anyone wanted to leave the building, it wasn’t allowed. If you wanted to go to the mosque, it wasn’t allowed. This happened maybe 10 times before I left.
So then we started to talk to each other by internet, by Facebook. We would say, “Everyone, meet here at this time”, and we would march down the street. But then the government cut off the internet, and they cut off electricity too. Every week, from Thursday to Sunday, we would have no internet, no electricity, and soldiers in the buildings.
Q: How did the situation become so bad for the people in Syria?
Why did the President do that? Why didn’t he listen to the people? If he listened at that time, there would be no war happening to this time.”
A: Just because all the Syrian people saw what happened in Egypt, in Libya, in Tunis, and Yemen, we didn’t start just because these people in another country started [a revolution]. What happened in [the Syrian town of] Daraa, this is the first step in Syria. One of the President’s cousins in Daraa, he tried to buy some big piece of land, more than 40 square km. This man, Atif Najib, he asked to buy this piece of land from someone, and the man said, “No, I don’t want to sell it, because more than 100 people live from this land.” And [Najib] cut the water for this area. He caught [the man’s] children, just to scare the father, and put them in the prison for a couple days.
And these children unfortunately wrote on the wall outside of school, “Let the President of Syria go outside. His turn will come soon.” And when one of the police saw the children, and knew their father, he caught the father and said, “If you don’t want to sell your land now, you’ll never see your children.” And a lot of people went to the police to ask, “I want to see my children,” and this is how the war started in Syria.
These people wrote to the President and said, “Please, we want to meet with you.” There were more than 17 people coming from Daraa to meet with the president to tell him about his cousin. And they asked, “How can you help? You are the President.” But unfortunately, [Najib] had more bodyguards than the President. He had more money than the President. So nobody could control him. So the President in Syria cannot ask him to leave the people alone. And the President said, “Ok, I will try to fix this problem”, and he didn’t do anything. So all the people in this province were very, very angry.
All the people in this province came down to the street and said, “We don’t like this. We need to see Atif Najib [held accountable].” Najib travelled to Damascus, and the President sent a lot of military to Daraa.
When we saw on the news – actually the internet, because [Assad] didn’t say it on Syrian TV – that he said that, “Everything in Daraa is good, nobody died”, and we saw on Facebook and Twitter and every website how angry everyone was in the province. And we asked, “Why did the President do that? Why didn’t he listen to the people?” If he listened at that time, there would be no war happening to this time.
Q: Was there a “point of no return”, when you decided that you had to leave Syria?
The government shot him, and I swear, I just stopped as he fell to the ground… And I didn’t do what I had to do. I just stopped and looked at him… I couldn’t go forward to catch the man, and I couldn’t take a step back. I just stopped. He was 18 years old.”
A; The people would meet every Friday at the mosque, and then head down the street saying, “We don’t like the President. Leave Syria.” More than 50,000 people would march [on the street I was on]. The government shot maybe three people. What happened now? It was like the spark from a cigarette lighter. Once there was blood, it grew the problem.
I was in the street in [the fall of 2011], there were too many people. I remember the date exactly because it was the first time I saw someone dead beside me. [Ed. Note: We have removed the specific date to preserve privacy.] He was five meters from me. And I knew this man. The government shot him, and I swear, I just stopped as he fell to the ground. The blood was coming from his face, and the people ran because the government was shooting. And I didn’t do what I had to do. I just stopped and looked at him. One of my friends shouted, “X, hurry up! X, the government is shooting people!” I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t go forward to catch the man, and I couldn’t take a step back. I just stopped. He was 18 years old.
All the people grew more and more angry. And all the Muslim people cleaned the body and put the body in the ground. We prayed for him in the mosque, and we were 100,000 people.
Q: How did you end up leaving Syria and coming to Canada?
I remember the day I was supposed to leave, the military came and just shut down the streets in my neighbourhood. I was so scared; I was crying and telling my mother that I will never be able to leave Syria.”
A: I had to leave Syria because my turn to go to the military was coming up. I had an auntie who lived in Canada, and she applied for a work permit for me to work in the country for 11 months. As long as I had the papers to leave Syria, I could escape without going to the military. But if I didn’t have the papers, then I was afraid that maybe the government would do something to my family.
Even after getting the work permit, I had to get the passport as I described earlier. Once I got the passport, I bought a flight for two days later to go to Jordan, and then to Canada. I remember the day I was supposed to leave, the military came and just shut down the streets in my neighbourhood. I was so scared; I was crying and telling my mother that I will never be able to leave Syria. But she said “Don’t worry, we will find a way to get you to the airport.” And we went out at night and took a dirt road where there were no military. We were driving through the forest in the dark, and someone would tell us “turn here to go to the airport”. We finally arrived just 30 minutes before my flight left for Jordan, and I was able to get on the flight.
Just a few days after I left, some soldiers came to my family’s building to ask where I was [in order to join the military]. My relatives said, “X is gone to Canada to work.” And the soldiers asked to see the papers and they said, “If you are lying and he is here, we will take you to the prison [where the military was torturing people].” But they were able to show my papers, that I had left to Canada to work.
Since the start of the popular uprising in 2011 and subsequent government crackdown, 12 million Syrians – half of the country’s population – have left their homes. At least 300,000 people have been killed, though some Syrians estimate the number to be closer to 700,000. Over 70,000 Syrians are still missing in the country’s prisons, where they could be tortured or killed without their families knowing anything about their whereabouts.
In Part II of this series, we will share X’s experiences as he navigates the refugee system in Canada, and attempts to build his life and bring his family to this country.
If you are looking to help, there are several organizations working on the ground and here in Canada to address this crisis in some way:
- Large international organizations include the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
- A list of other organizations seeking to provide help to refugees in the Middle East and Europe can be found here
- In Canada, the organization Lifeline Syria is pooling resources to sponsor Syrian refugees to come to this country.
- Please feel free to share the names of other organizations in the comments.
- Finally, please consider sharing this testimony through your networks. It’s our hope that sharing one refugee’s personal account may contribute to correcting common misconceptions and sparking discussion on how we can do more to help others seeking safety.