We Need Our Imaginings Confirmed

The title of a recent Global News article

How chocolate-selling Syrian-refugee family defied skeptics, made their dream in Canada

This Syrian-refugee family did not defy sketpics — another phrase overspilled on the English language from the reservoir of cliché by ESPN athlete profiles and puff pieces everywhere. The article indicates they may have been too busy: fleeing their country, surviving in a refugee camp, traveling to Canada, beginning chocolate production.

Neither did this Syrian family make or realise their dream in Canada. Narratives such as this are foisted upon us over and over. A constant implication of those who promote them assume Canada is better than Syria for Syrians. Their arguments, if not nebulous, rely either on proof by induction or by GDP. These from the same enthusiasm as “America is the greatest country in the world.”

I have yet to meet a Syrian who had not wanted, had not planned, to stay in Syria. Their dreams involved Syria. Those dreams became nightmares. And if they avoided the barrel bombs, escaped detention, skirted checkpoints, and were sprung from limbo by lottery, they came to Canada. This is a reprieve, a refuge. You don’t wake up from a nightmare in paradise. You wake up in a cold sweat.

It’s called Peace By Chocolate. And you can follow them on Facebook,” Trudeau told world leaders in New York.

Not exactly perfunctory — an everyman’s bootstraps and gumption — to have a Prime Minister doing your social media advertising at the United Nations.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of Syrians. But don’t take my word for it.

Check out Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, or Janine di Giovanni’s The Morning they Came For Us, or Alia Malek’s The Home that was our Country.

In Saleem Haddad’s Guapa, despite the protagonist being a closeted gay man, at-risk of communal and sanctioned government violence, readers still understand his ideal life involves being in Damascus. If you really need an anglo angle, Diana Darke makes her case for buying a house in Damascus and moving there in My House in Damascus.

Musa, the protagonist in Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, chooses to go back to Syria from Paris! If you’ve followed Samar Yazbek’s works, you’ll find her expressing similar sentiments. It is not just the rural or the working classes, whom I have interviewed across Turkey and in parts of Europe, it is Syrians from all classes, all educational achievements, who yearn for Syria.

I am inclined to believe that Canadians’ misunderstanding of this is parochial guesswork; an unexamined assumption. I don’t think anything particularly nefarious is going on in the average Canadians’ assumptions. But the outgrowth of these base assumptions can be (have been) hurtful in their personal interactions with Syrians and wrongheaded when it comes to policies local and national.

The best piece I have read this year on the topic is here, written by a Turkish writer whom fled following the coup attempt and resulting purge. The tremendous writing besides, the key matter is that she is right. Refugees who come to Canada should be free to exhibit the full spectrum of human condition, including anger, disillusion, sarcasm, bitterness, and ennui. When they act or react in unexpected ways, this is an opportunity for the observer to learn something.

On the other hand, when they are chastised or singled out for behaving in human ways on account that they should be humble and/or grateful simply because of their refugee status, an ignorant dynamic is being introduced. Someone even told my friend the other day that she should be proud to be a refugee. Proud her fellow citizens are at the bottom of the Mediterranean? Proud her country lays in rubble? Proud some of the children who survived sieges and gas attacks have missed five years of school? Proud of a label she wishes to cast off but that someone in her new country is determined she, the Syrian, bear and embrace against her will because she, the Canadian, says so? This is paternalism of the worst kind. This pride is a sin.

The truth is that Canada is a second option for Syrians. And that’s okay — there is nothing wrong or insulting about that. We can still help them and we can try to understand where they are coming from. Many have nowhere to go back to. The Greene family is such a case. The war is not winding down in their province; their home village remains under daily ariel bombardment. They have nowhere else to go.  I am fundraising to bring them to Canada here and personally matching all donations up to $1,000 made before October 1st.



“They washed their faces, and dried them, but the dust did not go away.” — The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

Musa, a Syrian in Paris, resolves to return home and direct films. A beautiful woman, Suzanne, urges him not to go.

But his “isn’t just empty romanticism, it’s a genuine feeling.” Arrested at the airport, he spends the majority of a fourteen year detention in the Assad regime’s Desert Prison — Tadmur or Palmyra. The narration that follows is admirably empty of both romance and sentiment. Sentiment tempts writers, but here presumes the reader needs instruction on reacting to cruel and unusual punishments, summary executions, controlled starvations, and eight gallows, repeatedly used.

An inscription, “In retaliation there is life for you, men possessed of minds!” (Qur’an 2:179) meets Musa at Tadmur’s gates. The full passage argues (dictates) that life, granted with guarantee of death, Allah’s design of existence whole, motivates god-fearing in men of understanding. Understanding, not surrendering critical faculties, will become righteousness.

Musa never touches the latter. Instead, confession of his Christian atheism during torture, then to another inmate, more than in vain, costs him “several years of total isolation, and treatment like that accorded to insects, if not worse!”

During this ostracization within captivity, our narrator peers into the prison yard — under a blanket, his shell — through a hole known only to him. He witnesses hangings (every Tuesday and Thursday) frequent enough to keep pace with Assad’s security apparatus, “at a time when hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood detainees were coming in every day.”

“[T]hree years before I returned from Paris,” Musa learns later, “a student who was with us…had written a report…that I’d made some remarks hostile to the current regime and disparaging to the President — an act that was reckoned among the worst of crimes.” 

As Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mustafa Khalifa’s Al Qawqaa (2006) ostensibly retells a nonfiction quiver empty. We begin knowing the alleged crime, the length of the imprisonment, and, as certainly as we know the Clutters are murdered brutally, that the narrator will live to become a memoirist. But, as in Capote’s feat, the quality of Khalifa’s description whisks foreknowledge from the reading experience.

The back cover to the English edition (The Shell, 2017, Paul Starkey trans.) suggests Solzhenitsyn. But Wiesel’s Night came first to this mind. It too describes a hell — “Every few days one or more people would be killed as the food was brought into the dormitories.” — impossible in nature.

Impossible, that is, without designs of man. 

“In front of the precious container of lentil soup, the sergeant grabbed the fedayi who’d carried the dish in… ‘Now dip your hands in the soup and let’s see…’ His hands emerged from the soup with the skin peeling. Then the sergeant forced him to carry the container into the dormitory.”

The Capote analogy breaks across Musa’s innocence, but also in the unmeasured distance between Khalifa the author and Musa the narrator. Both an accused, one senses fictionalisation by omission mostly, “I cannot write and say everything,” rather than distortion.

Although. Apolitical (“my uncle was a communist minister”) Musa is pulled under by a thrashing, paranoid leviathan, while Khalifa himself “was also a part of the Communist Action Party,” one-time member Dr. Jalal Nofal told these ears just days ago. Le biographie de l’auteur in the French edition, La Coquille (2007, Stéphanie Dujols trans.), mentions political involvement and both 1979-1980 and 1982-1994 as periods of imprisonment. Musa’s detention is approximately 1980 to 1994.

An unsympathetic, crass, or simply unconscious reader might immediately cast the device of an artificial backstory onto coals like subterfuge and revelation and agenda. This almost always furthers a presumption all too familiar to Syrians — that of a virtuous strong and a slippery weak as the ontological order of things. Another short bio, also in French, states La Coquille “constitue un témoignage romancé” — constitutes a romantic (or romanticised) testimony. We are not told where the borders of contrivance lie and thus reactionaries can everywhere attend doubt. However thin such soot, power is served at the expense of truth and reconciliation.

Par exemple, the following comment was left below an excerpt of La Coquille: “c’est de la pure propagande de la Merde sionistes.” [sic]

How the slothful can retread familiar ground. See, Tadmur fictionalised is an instrument because cui bono is a vector of proof not a guiding principle of inquiry. Besides, Syrians are incapable both of democratic self-governance and of penning exquisite literature. Corroboration withers much hand-waving claiming insight. And corroboration springs forth.

“On a cold day,” a young Tadmur survivor told the aforementioned Jalal,

they put us out in the yard to stand there as punishment. A small bird fell on the ground, unable to move its wings or fly. I stared at it with the tenderness of a child, but one of the guards saw me and asked me whether I liked it. I remained silent because I was afraid to answer. So he asked me again… I hesitantly answered that it was a nice bird. He ordered me to go and get it. As I held it, the bird was chirping in my little hands. For a short while, I thought the guard didn’t lose all of his humanity or maybe he is here against his will. I hadn’t completed the thought when I heard him asking me to swallow this bird.

Musa remembers “the sergeants…spent a significant part of their time catching mice, cockroaches, and tortoises, and forcing the prisoners to swallow them.”

Jalal, a psychiatrist, noticed his nonfictional storyteller would not sit still. “Up to this moment, I hear its chirping coming from my throat…especially in moments of silence.”

Meanwhile, a guard “grabbed my testicles and squeezed them hard,” after “he spat all the contents of his mouth into mine.” Musa gulps, in “a terrible wave of pain,” and reports never feeling clean inside thereafter.

“Today my breakfast was three olives,” Musa still, “a small spoonfull of jam for supper. If there were eggs for breakfast, it was a boiled egg between three prisoners.”

“[T]he breakfast of people, three olives for each one. Or if it is egg, for four person one egg, one boiled egg,” now Muhammed, a third Tadmur survivor, untethered to the others here, telling me last year. His liver began failing in his fifth year — he was unable to digest fats. “They brought jam in the breakfast. My friends would give their portion of jam to me.” 

Khalifa rarely paints the inmates who shun Musa as virtuous. But in describing the process of punishing night whisperers, his account matches Muhammed’s exactly. “[I]f a sick or elderly man had been ‘noted’ by the guards,’ then one of the fedayeen (“strong and physically fit young men”) would take the place of the sick man and receive the five hundred lashes.”

Muhammed entered, “my kidnapping I say,” Tadmur in 1980 also. He was sixteen and judged innocent two years later. “The same court had over many years delivered innocent verdicts on prisoners arrested by mistake who were actually still children,” The Shell details. But “[the court] did not have the right to release an innocent man…the first and second dormitories were known even to the police as ‘the innocent dormitories.'” Muhammed spent nine more years in, Faraj Bayrakdar words, “a kingdom of death and madness.”

Why conduct Milgram experiments when there was Tadmur? “The new arrivals were always reluctant to take hold of the whip or the cane…. their beatings would be light and uncertain.” Hangings “would make them vomit.”

A peculiar anecdote in Ross’s The Missing Peace, tells of Hafez receiving news of a son’s death. Seeing officials crestfallen, he first asked “if there was a coup.”

“This was not a man who felt secure.”

For what then, all this madness?

Too much Lear could be invoked here. But an entitled authority, raging, “The tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else/ Save what beats there—filial ingratitude” — does capture something of Bashar. Deified for seventeen years, as Hafez was for thirty — in the dawn chants of every drilling conscript, in the “prison radio… blaring out songs praising the Head of state” — he still now talks as a parent to misbehaving children. But Bashar is too often caricatured. Enfant terrible, oblivious Lear, dead-eyed banshee. Beware that which cartoons hideous human reality.

An Eichmann and a Gaddafi, he is simultaneously a real man who sleeps at night and a ridiculous figure. The inheritor of his father’s banality and sprawling network of paranoia and nonsense. To no end.

Musa, freed, has “lost the capacity for astonishment.” But the nightmare follows him. And it reminds him that his waking freedom is both real and the nightmare still.

“Dust. Dust covered everything — lanes, streets, walls, everything was covered in a layer of fine yellow dust. The green tree leaves… were now covered with this fine layer of dust.” A century, a sea, but not a world apart, from snow “falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills… it lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.”

And the “faces of people,” whether “in the squares or on the sidewalks,” as Musa wanders the city he once hoped to stalk through an aesthete’s lens, “covered in this layer of yellow dust.”

The dizzying apogee, a Joyce signature, pulses a sublime resonance, last punctuation read. Khalifa’s climax only devastates. A thunderbolt. Paralysis.


On the way to the barbershop in the bright Gaziantep sun, Adnan asks how many wives a man is allowed in Canada.

Just one.

“Ah. So like Turkey.”

A begging pause.

And how many in Syria?


The barber is used to communicating through body language with his Turkish customers.

The young men queued smile through the mirrors, hair over-gelled, their first moustaches lined up precisely. One sits in a mud mask.

“Is he from Germany?” the barber asks. “How does he want his hair cut?”

Tell him I trust him.

After clipping, cutting, shaving, shampooing, blow-drying, after-shaving, powdering, and gelling, the man refuses twenty lira.

He had taken his time with the straight blade, massaging in the cream twice at first and reapplying liberally. No stubble. No cuts.

“He will always refuse the first time. You must insist.”

He accepts fifteen.

“Lots of Syrians in this neighbourhood.” 



The ignition on, the car in park, Adnan makes a few more calls. It’s half past eight.

“So many calls,” he sighs, “for just one story.”

Tonight is five months work in the making for him.

Climbing into the city’s densest neighbourhood, a large, pristine mosque, flood-lit, is surrounded by apartments six to sixteen stories high, as dictated by the gradient.

Wading through traffic, the tailor pulls up at a lightless, signless intersection to shake hands through the driver-side window.

Assalamu alaikum

The usual after dark sense data.

A ‘park’ with a triangle of grass and seven ATM pods. A disarranged taxi stand. Watermelons for sale. The street lit without streetlights. Everything perfumed by köfte.

Led into a dusty alleyway, Adnan hesitates parking.

“I don’t like this neighbourhood.”

Tonight’s host Mahmoud appears.

The tailor’s hand scribbles through the air.

“He says you will need to write very fast tonight.”

Mahmoud nods, pushing a heavy bolt up into the brick doorframe.

“She has a lot to say.”

Musty. Up four flights, attention attracted. Going up looking down through indoor windows half-draped with fabric, mattresses and blankets on concrete, side by side by side by side.

Shoes off; Mahmoud invites his guests to a blue pallor couch. Opposite, between an arabic calendar and a tiny framed print of flowers, black hands are pinned on a white face. Quarter to nine.

Ponytailed Layla comes close, in a hot pink jacket and a white dress splashed with green, blue, and orange flowers. She is seven.

She kisses the back of Adnan’s hand, wraps his wrist in her fingers. Eye contact. She pulls his hand to meet her forehead, transferring her kiss.

Two more: cheek to cheek and cheek to cheek.

But absent momentum in the subsequent lull her boldness shies and her eyes avert.


And giggling she runs to take her father’s phone.

A hefty baby appears, thrust into the stranger’s arms.

She bounces happily — for a spell — but prefers her father.

“This is Aisha,” Mahmoud says proudly.

The Arabic fog thickens — one of Adnan’s mobile phones is on speaker, passed amongst the three men.

“We have a friend who is trying to get from Syria to Turkey,” Adnan explains. “But legally.”

“It is a bit complicated. He didn’t get the exit stamp when he left.”

Eight-year old Alia hauls a four litre jug of water into the corner with her father’s help. She tips it steadily, Layla holding a glass.

Water is presented. After a few sips, Layla revokes the glass assertively, returns to the jug for a refill, and presents the same glass to the next guest.

“We are just talking about how corrupt it is,” Adnan explains parenthetically, “inside Syria.”

“Some Syrians, they bring their corruption here with them.”

Tongues wetted, cigarettes lit, ashtrays are balanced on thin upholstery. The man on the phone called from Istanbul — having waited three months for the Turkish-Syrian border to reopen, he gave up and paid a smuggler.

Mahmoud’s wife Fatima enters the room to place a small table with glasses of Pepsi before the guests. Layla is charged with the two litre bottle and refills. Quarter to nine.


Idlib countryside


The mother of Shahid enters.

She does not meet anyone’s eyes. She wears black.

Hobbled she shows herself to the floor, grasping the long pillow under the window, her back to the wall.

She weeps.

“There is a comedy movie,” Mahmoud looks at Adnan.

“A Canadian man, he comes to Damascus and tells the Syrians that he will take them to Canada. So then they all come and pay him a lot of money.

He has this big school bus that the Syrians get on. And he drives them east and let’s them off in the Syrian desert.

And the Syrians get off the bus and say ‘Yes! We are in Canada.’

And then Assad’s army comes by and says ‘You stupid motherfuckers are still here.’”

She looks to the ceiling, she looks to her feet.

There is silence. She sobs, mutters, prays.

I am the mother of eight girls and one son. I am from a village between Aleppo and A’zaz — Tell Rifaat .

I am living here with a son, thirteen, of the other wife of my husband. I have lost one of every person you can have — sister, brother, aunt, uncle, mother, niece, nephew, cousin —

The story of my son, it was 2013.

There was a place for scientific research, doing tests for different things, on the road to Aleppo ’s international airport. Where my daughter used to live, it was near this research centre. And they attacked it. My daughter’s building was hit. Under the building, she took refuge with the other neighbours and called me.

My son must go to check on my daughter, to find her. My daughter called to say she was trapped and cannot go out, the plane is in the sky, ‘Please open a way to take me out of this place.’

The husband of my daughter, he was imprisoned by the regime at the time. So my son was the only one to rescue her. And he went to this place and brought her out, even though it was difficult.

He saw all of these people killed on the way. He saw pieces of people everywhere along the road. After he saw all of these people dying and in pieces on the ground, he decided to go to the Free Syrian Army.

I told him ‘Please, don’t go.’

And he said ‘After all these horrible things I saw, I will go and I will fight.’

He went to jihad and was hurt three times.

In the village we are from, we always have a gun. But he had not been in the army before, so he didn’t have a lot of experience with this. But he improved himself. He had some fighting experience and became a soldier.

At that time there was fighting between the Free Syrian Army and Daesh. Behind the Dushka, on the first line vehicle, they put him. They should be the first ones attacking.

And I insisted until the last second, ‘Don’t go to fight, you are fourteen years old and I have your sisters here. Who will take care for them if something happens to you?’

And he said ‘No, I have to fight. I have to bring back the rights to the Syrian people.’

I would go to the front lines a lot to see my son. I would go to a lot of the places where he was fighting. He always refused to return.

They even attacked me once, to get rid of me.

“Can we record audio?” Adnan asks, prompted.

No — it is forbidden.

She points with her thumbs.

… is he a Muslim?

“It is not my business,” Adnan says, his line well-practiced.

“She has lost a lot of people,” he explains. “She doesn’t want to sit with foreigners or someone she doesn’t know.”

Thirteen days before, I sat with my son and his friend.

I was talking with him and I said, ‘Please go back to the house. Now we have eight women and your father lost his job, because someone said that his son was working with the FSA. And they also wrote on the report that your father was moving weapons for the FSA. Now you are our only chance to be supported.’

And my son told me that they had attacked him six or seven times and he didn’t die, because God wouldn’t accept him. He had made some mistakes in his life and he could not be allowed into heaven yet. He said he thought he should continue fighting, so that God will accept him.

We promised that we would meet again, at Eid. But I had a feeling that it would be the last time. So when I was with him, I moved behind him, and I waved my hand to his back, because I thought it was the last time I would see him.

And they were on the frontline, the hotline. Thirteen days later his friend was killed by a sniper.

My son went to check on his friend’s location and the same sniper killed my son.

After one or two days they told my husband. He didn’t let me know. But I had a feeling that something was wrong. I had a feeling from the face of my husband.

Eventually they told me. And after, they showed me a video of my son taken one day before his death. In the video he asked his cousin in Turkey to take care of his mother and to make sure she does not want anything, that she has all she needs.

He knew that he would not see me again.

Layla refills the glasses. Quarter to nine.

My husband is in the Shamarin camp, شمارين. All of my family is in this camp, inside Syria.

One of my daughter’s husband, he was killed as well. Now I am taking care of my daughter, his widow.

Another daughter, her husband was from Mare’ , مارع. And my daughter was at the camp, nine months pregnant. He went to his village to get a generator, because there was not electricity at the camp.

He went by motorcycle with his cousin. On his way to the village there was a Free Syrian Army mine. They were both killed. His child was eight days old at that time — and this is why he wanted to bring electricity, to maybe power some fan for his new son.

Then they named her son after her husband, the same name.

Her husband had given three grams of gold and some money to my daughter the day before. He said ‘This is a gift for you.’ And then he went and died going to fetch the generator.

One of his relatives went to tell my daughter saying ‘your husband is hurt.’

And she said, ‘Don’t say that he is hurt when he has died.’ She knew.

The child, he is two years and four months old now. He is in Syria with the rest of my family.

Mahmoud, the tailor, and Adnan tsk together. And they tsk often.

Mahmoud smokes continuously. He sits still now — no longer with elbows supporting his weight on one armrest, no longer bouncing on the ankle tucked underneath him — distracting humour lapsed from his mind.

Another one of my daughters, her husband was fighting for the Free Syrian Army. Once he was driving and had the FSA flag secured to his car.

He drove into this town, but he did not know that the town had been taken by Daesh a few hours before. They stopped him and took him and his four cousins out of the car. They took them to a prison.

Her thumb crosses her throat.

The next day they beheaded them.

tsk tsk tsk

There are long silences. The tailor hardly speaks. She prays, rocking against the long throw pillow.

She mentions certain hadiths, to the room’s agreement.

All of these things have been mentioned in the hadiths by the prophet Muhammed. You can look them up. That there would be this kind of fighting in this area, and all kinds of people coming from around the world to fight — and to do terrible things.

“And this is true,” says Adnan. “I can show you these hadiths if you want.”

The baby asleep, Mahmoud’s wife serves çay and sits with her daughters.

She wears fitted navy to her ankles, large ribboning sewn under her right clavicle, headscarf zebraic in shimmering silver and black.

Eight now sit, four elevated, four on the floor. The rug covers two thirds of the concrete.

The mother of Shahid had a nephew, son of her sister, in the regime army, killed near Damascus . His brother, living near A’zaz , was called to retrieve the body. Nine months after, a third brother, a civilian, was killed by Russian air strikes in FSA territory. The same brother had to make another journey.

Adnan takes another phone call. The mother of Shahid, palms facing one another, measures a foot in distance vertically.

You can write this size book and my story will not end.

What made you come to Turkey?

The area around Mare’ (also Marea) مارع, was controlled by the FSA, including my town, Tell Rifaat تل رفعت. But one day a huge number of Daesh forces attacked. And Daesh would, the FSA thought, take the women — as their own — like prisoners.

Maybe eight or ten members of the Free Syrian Army mixed themselves with the Daesh fighters and blew up their bodies. This would give us a few more hours. Daesh would take the area anyways, they knew that, but they gave the others a chance.

They called the Kurdish area and asked ‘Open the way for us, there are women and children who need to escape.’ The PKK said ‘You can go out this way if you give us the right to control the village of Shaykh Isa, شيخ عيسى .’

See they do not have good relation, the FSA and the PKK . The FSA agreed to this and everyone in the village escaped into Kurdish territory.

This area north of Aleppo has been and is so hotly contested that a line ten kilometres long can be drawn from Mare’ , just east of Tell Rifaat , that south by southwest, as of June 10th, 2016, crosses into territory controlled by each of the YPG, the Free Syrian Army, Daesh (ISIS), and the Assad regime.

The FSA fired guns throughout the village to signal that Daesh was coming. And when people heard the voice of the guns, most of the village fled and escaped. I cannot walk because of my knee. And because I could not walk, I stayed.

Daesh was coming and there was the sound of guns everywhere. Four men would not be able to sleep in this situation — I couldn’t walk with my two children. Four men would not sleep. I was so scared, but I slept.

My brother’s wife, she has three children. She ran with other people from the village. It was night, hours before dawn. One of the children can walk better than the others. So she carried two in her arms, one in either arm.

And the other was running behind her. She was escaping with the other people and she forgot her third child was running behind her. And suddenly she turned her head and she didn’t see him.

She cried and hated herself.

‘What did I do?’

She had lost him in the night.

A prayer rug is produced for Adnan.

Tall Rifat today

Tall Rifat at the time

The mother of Shahid continues to speak without translation. The tailor and Mahmoud tsk. She forms guns with her hands, makes gunshot noises. She draws her thumb across her wrists. Quarter to nine.

Two of my sister’s children were fighting on the first line, for the FSA also. And their leader left them there, alone, on the first line. They were abandoned and killed.

I am trying to just give a summary, you can write more than 150 chapters if I describe.

Layla has headphones on, playing with the phone. Alia works in a notebook. They are both learning English. Both can count to seven.

So we are displaced. I am living here — we are still struggling here.

My husband is living with one of my daughters in the Syrian camp, Shamarin, شمارين. If I want to bring, I can bring my husband and my child, but I cannot bring the child of my daughter. It doesn’t make sense to bring only my husband. She does not have income, she will have no one to take care of her. None of them have income so there is no real chance for us to be reunited right now.

Another of my daughters is in Adıyaman , another is in Kilis , and another is in Maraş .

Another daughter married a Turkish man here — he was not so good to her. She escaped him and came here, to this house. And he followed with some mafia, to this house as well. Mahmoud called the police and told the true story. The police kicked him out and they were divorced.

The mother of Shahid has had difficulty getting a kimlik, the Turkish government’s identification card for Syrians staying in Turkey. In theory, the kimlik (which translates to “ID” directly from Turkish) comes with certain entitlements, to health insurance for example. But she says she must wait six months, until November 29th, to apply.

I have to wait just to apply for this shitty care. You have to know someone in Turkey just to get this.

The Turkish police stopped my husband’s son a few days ago. He is thirteen years old and he doesn’t even have his Syrian ID. And no kimlik. They hit him and told him that he should have this. They hit him!

Syrian coffee appears.


She rests her coffee saucer on the pillow but thinks better of it. She says she hasn’t received any NGO-assistance since her arrival. In her living space on the building’s first floor, an element is built into a clammy counter, a fridge is shared with another large family. Her family’s space is one room. Mould is a large issue. So is privacy.

We didn’t see the olive oil since we came to Turkey. I break the bread hard for the children.

And my house here is a stable, like for the animals.

“My salary is 250 Turkish Lira a week, it is not enough,” Mahmoud adds. “There are NGOs going to other neighbourhood where there is not so much need. And in Europe they are getting 500 EUR a month and staying in the hotel. They are given everything and don’t have to work.”

“Here if you don’t work you will die from starvation.”

Last week I went to the bus without money. And the driver asked me to pay with the card.

And I said ‘I have no card and I have no money.’

And he says, ‘Well go and get a card.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘I have no money.’

‘Go out. Go out and get a card.’

‘What will you lose if you take me there?’

‘Go out and get a card.’

And I said ‘What fucking card?!’

The girls and their mother burst into laughter.

I took five liras out of my pocket to give to his hand.

The tailor suggests there is a camera, that they can check each passenger.

He should make it easy for me and just let me go. He didn’t regard me as a human.

I don’t have any other money. I told him I wanted to buy bread with this five lira.

He said, ‘Okay, it is not my problem.’

The Turkish people, they don’t know anything but working and eating.

They don’t know anything different. They don’t even know how to pray.

Mahmoud and Adnan speak across a conversation between the mother of Shahid, Fatima, and the tailor.

“What are you writing?” Mahmoud stops. “When Adnan has not been speaking any English!”

“And Adnan — today you bring me a Canadian and tomorrow will you bring me an American?”

“Today you brought me a blond and tomorrow, please, bring a black one.”

If you want to listen to the whole Syrian story, you need a factory of books.

Imagine at the same time, we learned my son died and it was the wedding of my sister. During the wedding they were all crying. They should be happy in this time. They were wearing their wedding clothes, but they were all crying.

“Are you writing a series for television?” Mahmoud asks, bouncing once again in his chair. “Because you are writing down every letter.”

“If you are writing a book, you should be finished it by now!”

“You keep making notes — you look like a director. Tomorrow we will see Adnan on the television in a cameo and the credits will say the tailor is assistant producer!”

“He can write 150 episodes with these notes! Tomorrow we will see our story on the television, but he will find actors to play us.”

Who do you want to play you?

“I will play myself. So you will have the real Mahmoud!”

The mother of Shahid says her brother’s son, a newlywed, almost lost his arm in a barrel bomb attack. Calling for his wife at the hospital, she arrived and promptly fainted seeing his state.

The husband said, ‘Please, bring my brother, because my wife cannot control herself.’

And the staff at the hospital smiled.

‘Even now your brother is hurt and staying in a different hospital in Syria.’

Her brother’s son and his wife, once he was sufficiently mobile, raised money from friends and family to leave Syria. They collected 10,000 Syrian pounds, the equivalent of 150 USD at the time. The taxi driver to the border was asking for 35,000. The wife asked for help from her brother in Kayseri, Turkey , who sent 500 Turkish Lira, then ~230 USD. The couple got to the border with their two boys and one girl. They planned to cross in an ambulance.

Usually, that was the only way they could come here to the Turkish side — and you are allowed to bring an assistant and an infant. This family they are five members. With wife, husband, two boys, and one girl. The staff asked to choose just one. So he took his wife as his assistant and she took the infant boy.

Then there were the last two children. The four year old child, he whispered in his mother’s ear, ‘I can fit myself in this space, in this bag. Just open a small space to take the air.’

So one of the boys is in the bag. His mom just left it open a little by the zipper, so he can have some air. And they left the daughter.

The girl is still crying until now.

I have a record of her on the phone and she says, ‘Dad do you still love me or did you die?’

Now he is in the hospital in Kilis and his wife is in the camp in Kayseri with the infant and the boy.

And the daughter is still in Syria. And she keeps sending recorded messages to the mother — ‘Mother where are you?’

This is a symbol of our life. This fire didn’t let anyone escape without burning a piece of them.

And we have been conquered by everybody.

“They made a lot of money because of the Syrians here,” Mahmoud adds. “The police, the NGOs, the hospitals. Especially on the border — the smugglers.”

Our story makes the stone cry.

The stone cries for us, but not the humans. Whoever has a strong heart will cry for the Syrian mothers. One of my neighbours in Syria has children this age [pointing to the girls] and they have hair like my father’s because they are scared all of the time.

“I think you should learn Arabic,” Mahmoud interrupts again.


“This is Turkish!”

There is nothing in the whole history of the world that happened like in Syria in this time.

Once the plane attacked our neighbourhood while we slept and my daughter was shaking for one hour. She couldn’t talk. And still now if there is any plane in the area in Turkey, she goes back to that way, to shaking. She wakes up in the night, once every week like this. It has planted terror in our hearts.

“Are we really just seven or eight million who has come out of Syria?” Mahmoud wonders.

He lifts up an ashtray from the arm of his chair to goggle at the empty space underneath it, his head taken aback.

“If you look under a rock in Germany, or the UK, or America, or Canada — if you look under a rock in any of these places — Surprise! — out come a Syrian!”

An invisible dam has burst. The tailor can’t stop laughing. The girls giggle at their father. And the eyes of Fatima admire him.

“Did you know there are Syrian refugees on Mars? The Russians once went to Mars and they found Syrians there. They were disputing cash assistance!”

“And the Turkish people wonder where Syrians keep coming from — so many keep dying there, but Turkey has more every time!”

“We should prepare to go,” Adnan whispers. “It is late.”

This is just a summary. If I described it, you will not leave the house for three days.

Don’t write my name. You can write that I am the mother of Shahid.

Layla’s head rests on her mother’s knee. She is fast asleep. Quarter to nine.

Thank you for listening.

I feel there is mercy in your heart.



“When she started crying” Adnan explains later, “he tried to interrupt us with jokes. He whispered ‘forgive me.’ He just was trying to make it easy for her.”

Two men march the sidestreets of residential Gaziantep , one beating a drum that booms throughout the neighbourhood. It is the first day of Ramadan.

“I will film it for my family.”
Adnan reviews the transcription, directs searches on google maps, suggests spellings.

The drumming achieves some degree of omnipresence.

“I think the people who are not fasting will not be happy.”

He lies down on the couch.

“Can you wake me in fifteen minutes? I can start cooking when I wake up.”

It’s half past two.


Last week. Power out when I woke up. In the street a big black armoured car. Then total normalcy. Turns out the power bill just hadn’t been paid. Saw another armoured car that day but didn’t hear anything of it.

Today. Frighteningly cold. The people in bad situations are likely freezing tonight. There is a woman in Kilis, about 30 minute drive south. I interviewed her maybe six months ago. She has kids. Her husband died, though not as a result of the conflict.  She lives in a empty car garage, tarps for walls. It is -10 and windy tonight. They have a wood burning stove, so I hope tonight they have wood. No income she collects discarded bread and goes through garbage. When we came into her abode there was a pile of hard bitten mouldy bread in a corner, kept away from where they sleep and play. The bread in that pile was for eating.

She used to watch Turkish soap operas in north Syria, but in south Turkey doesn’t have a television in her hovel. She gave her son a Turkish name after one of her favourite characters before she knew she’d be flung from her home. She laughed, hoping it would serve him well. I remember one quotation without looking at my transcript and notes. “God has forgotten us.”

Heading west to Antakya tomorrow.

Life’s Good, Brother


It was on the fifth visit I saw Nazim high on the wall, a portrait only for wandering eyes. His Life’s Good, Brother arcs nebulous degrees of biography over decades of haunting loss, exile, and imprisonment. In English it reads as a staccato never grating, teasing coalesce as time flies.

Detention and imprisonment based on beliefs and affiliations dominate each character in the book. The narrator’s visit to the USSR, to fall in love with many ideas and one woman, follows him for the rest of his days.

“We started moving again. Groups on side streets waited to join the march. “Our bakers!” Kerim exclaimed. On the side street, with their zipkas, caps, and flags both with and without the star and crescent, are our Black Sea men. “1 May” was written in Turkish on their banners. Russia had countless local cooperatives of Laz bakers, but their central cooperative is new. And the Chinese are in the business of laundry and ironing. But both our workers and the Chinese keep their own citizenship. They vote in the Soviet elections and can be elected, join the syndicates, or become members of the Bolshevik Party. me, for example, a Turkish national, if I stand for election, I can be voted to the presidency of the Supreme Soviet. My God, how beautiful! So many parts of the world exist in one immense country! Here you’re not asked your religion, country, or nationality. No. Instead, you’re asked: “Do you live by exploiting others? Have you been a priest or a hodja? Have you worked for the police, the bourgeois gendarmes?” And if you answer, “No,” you’re okay, and you become a part of this great country, as if you were born here. what a beautiful, think, Anushka, how beautiful! To fall in step with people whose language you don’t know, whose customs and traditions you don’t know, and not feel like an alien. Feeling like an alien must be very sad, Anushka; I don’t know, I’ve never lived through it, but an Albanian gardener who worked at my grandfather’s seaside house had lived in Istanbul for who knows how many years. “Istanbul is beautiful,” he’d say, “God bless its owners. But I’m afraid I’ll die here, from from home.”

Maybe exile is just a matter of degree.

My friend called excitedly seventeen times today. He has a job interview tomorrow, 11:00 a.m.

He has worked at a coffee shop for three years, experiencing many of the problems Syrians in Turkey face. He often gets shorted (they pay him 250 when he is owed 300), his paydays are consistently pushed back, and Turkish coworkers doing the same job (and/or with less experience) get paid more than him. He never gets raises.

“What can I do my friend?” he asks ad nauseum.

He’s got this down on his luck shtick honed to the point I began excoriating him to be more positive because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Though surely this is in part because of the small selection of English available to him. Like many Syrians here he suffers by comparing his situation to what he had in mind for himself, what he had before, what others have now.

When he phoned to say he couldn’t open the cafe in the morning because of the interview the manager told him either to reschedule it for the afternoon or to effectively quit his job. This is far from the first time he’s been strong armed — “They have no mercy. They want me to work as an animal.” — the capricious and arbitrary powers granted by the informal employer and the guest worker. During Ramadan this summer he was the only staff member fasting yet the hardest worked.

We went to the barbershop for the better part of two hours after that. He got his already clean cut sharpened and his beard lightened. The barber there, a young smiler from Aleppo, frets over every hair on your head. So said sharpening took twenty minutes while a full cut lasted an hour. Total price for the latter: $3.90 USD.

It helped. His mood buoyed, we stopped by the cafe and he handed in his keys — he won’t open tomorrow. If he gets the job he will almost quadruple his monthly take home pay — certain friends won’t suffer anymore bellyaching — and he’ll have a path for advancement.

We mellowed with çay towards midnight, a small live performance on. I saw Nazim’s picture while my friend unwittingly paraphrased the title to explain his mood with an optimist’s sigh.

“When you are bad man bad things happen to you and when you are a good man good things happen.”

I don’t believe it but tonight he did.


in vain

Gusting and grey today.

Yesterday tutoring English I invoked in vain the phraseI’ve heard multiple Syrians use it fluently. Turns out they have an equivalent in Arabic.

So something that might be a bit high level for a native English speaker, or even arcane, is a natural fit for an Arabic speaker coming to English. I suppose not unlike edifice for a Spanish speaker (edificio) or capricious for an Italian (capriccioso). These are words many English speakers don’t use.

I think I was trying to make a point about how in English there will be multiple solutions to a writing problem, but I won’t always know the one most intuitive or straightforward one to an Arabic-first-language eye. The invocation itself may have been in vain


The phrase also well describes my efforts at writing in this space. And of course it comes up all the time in discussing Syria and people’s efforts to help Syrians.

Canadians are sad but never really cared

These are Western Values

I know a Syrian with a lot of energy who wants to come to Canada, to work hard, to study much, to build a life. He has wanted this ever since I met him and some time has passed since then. Some months ago he saw a program on Al-Jazeera that profiled an engineer who had come to Canada from Syria but could not find work.

Of it he asked me simply, “Is it right?” Tough question.

“I think these days governments pay for such coverage.”

I didn’t say that but wish I had. A friend, experienced in this crisis, pretty high up in an European NGO’s office, offered that cynical take when relayed the possibly misaligned question put to me. But it is not far from known truths — see Syrians fear the other through an absence of exposure (just as parochialists in the west fear them). Surrendering to an anecdote is to surrender entirely — and media takes advantage of this in all directions.

The other day in a central neighbourhood of Oslo I walked by a noxious sign, one in Norwegian and in Arabic, advertising to refugees and asylum claimants that the Norwegian government would pay them some considerable sum to repatriate.

Denmark takes out ads in Lebanon clarifying their country’s rules — that you can’t bring family members for the first year, that you can’t gain permanent residency in less than five years, that you can’t be accepted in Danish society without fulfilling language requirements — but also warning that benefits you might have heard of others receiving are going to be reduced.

There is, in fairness, a massive amount of disinformation floating through the Syrian diaspora. Conspicuous fact spreading has value. Too many were told stories about a land of milk and honey, too many decided their destination en route impromptu, Finland, no Sweden, no Germany — on a happenstance confidence. But the intention behind such advertising is also easily inferred.

And then there is this from Loretta Napoleoni’s recent Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugees into a Multibillion Dollar Business [a publisher’s title if there ever was one]:

Libya has steadily profited from the trafficking of migrants. In 2003 the Berlusconi government began secret negotiations with the Libyan dictator Gaddafi to reach an agreement about “containing” and “blocking” migrants traveling through Libya. That same year, Italy sent “supplies” to help Tripoli deal with migrants: boats, SUVs, trucks, diving equipment, twelve thousand blankets, one thousand body bags, and a large number of containers, which Gaddafi used to transport African migrants from the coast back inland to detention camps in the Libyan desert.”

“When we got to Misrata there was a container waiting for us,” said one migrant. “It was very long. They forced us inside it. We did not even know what it was. While we were there they brought another hundred people from the prison. They came from different countries many were from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea. I was supposed to reach Italy and instead from Misurata, trapped inside the container, I went back south, to Kufra.” At the edge of the Libyan Sahara, near the border with Sudan, Kufra was Gaddafi’s biggest detention center. Sooner or later, all migrants ended up in Kufra.

“They locked me in a container with another 110 people. During the journey half of them passed out. When we reached the destination the prison was full and could not take us. We were in Ajdabia. So they put us back into the container, without giving us any water and drove us to Kufra. People started to die next to me,’ remembers another migrant.

To assist Gaddafi “in the migration flows,” Italy also provided cash. The financial law of December 2004 granted Libya 25 million for 2005 and 20 million for 2006.

“It was a shocking deal, which legalized Libya’s twenty-first-century gulag system,” Napoleoni concludes a bit further on. I have omitted a considerable breadth of horrifying passages about those raped while looping perpetually inside human trafficking.

So, it’s tough to make it in Canada, Norway will pay you to leave, Denmark doesn’t want you to come, and in the very recent past Italy was bankrolling a system of human enslavement in lieu of accepting the desperate. So what? Are we coming to the titular point?

Sadness and caring

I do not want to get into a long thing about practical and philosophical ethics. And I don’t subscribe to the view that someone’s externalised intended actions are the whole and real representation of their internal ethics. But I know scores of guilty whites who seem to believe how you present yourself, especially in the words you choose and the words you refuse, and how you arrange matters in your mind plays some role in human solidarity.

If they actually cared about Syrians, Canadians would have done something about the crisis before the photo of Alan Kurdi was held up to their faces. And I don’t think they cared after seeing the photo either. What I think happened is they got sad. Understandable reaction to a dead child face down on a beach.

But the solution to this sadness was not sustained solidarity — it was happiness.


And what is Canadian happiness if not taking a smiling selfie with a woman in a hijab?

The post-selfie period 

I saw this article yesterday about a program I never even knew about. I wonder how well the program could have been advertised in the first place if it only brought 127 people to Canada, if it outsourced costs and responsibilities to the Catholic Crosscultural Services (actually the article, poorly written, wasn’t clear about that relationship, exactly, but a spokesperson for CCS defended their failed efforts).

We’re going to walk along a tangent for a little. Because the writer of this article, Michelle Zilio, chose to juxtapose the failure of the Family Links Initiative to get enough Canadians to sponsor those registered with the private sponsorship program whose sponsors were and are waiting anxiously for their refugees to arrive to Canada. Because those they sponsored were late. This isn’t a dichotomy. And I quote:

The low sponsor numbers for Family Links is in stark contrast to the overwhelming interest from private sponsors in Canada, who have expressed frustration with the lengthy waits for the arrival of the Syrian families they sponsored.

Those who sponsored refugees worried about them when they didn’t turn up. Imagine that! But that actually says nothing about how many Canadians were willing to sponsor Syrians, does it?

It depresses me in some vague way that a writer at the Globe can’t arrange concepts in their copy as deadline approaches. And that it took until January 12th for this article to come out about something the government announced over the holidays — a typical hiding tactic — and the hiding worked because I didn’t read about it until yesterday. And it is my imagination that they probably hid the program from the start. From the article:

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who is highly involved in Toronto’s refugee sponsorship community, said he has never heard of Family Links, which he found disappointing given the number sponsorship groups wanting to resettle a Syrian family.

I think the juxtaposition in the article also has this other affect, that I see popping up everywhere, and it is the perpetuation of the notion that Canadians are and have been munificent. I very much doubt that they have been.

I worry about pieces like this. If the point is to humanise refugees since they are people just like you and me, I am all for that since this is still something that needs doing. But there is a more insidious danger which plays to the more reactionary and economically illiterate portions of the electorate (so, nearly the entire electorate) and that is to sell the idea that Canada (a) has done enough and/or (b) has shouldered a burden.

There is no proof that any of the refugees taken on are economically burdensome. Firstly there are the groups of old monied Canadians who have sponsored refugees privately. There is no proof that these sponsors are not making a great sale, that their otherwise disposable income is buying them warm fuzzy feelings, the self-regard and the regard of others that comes with anti-anonymous charity. A sponsored family of refugees is about as conspicuous a consumption as there can be. You can get your purchase profiled in the Toronto Star and trot those refugees to dinner parties. What is not happening in such cases is sacrifice or burden on the part of the Canadian taxpayer.

Then there are perhaps more wholesome groups, church groups and so forth, who are also not burdened whatsoever. Here:


To get back to the point, Canadians found a solution to this Alan Kurdi sadness: Justin Trudeau and the better-than-the-rest-of-the-world refugee program. Every time I hear a politician say, or read an article which states, that Canada’s refugee resettlement program is the best in the world, I think ‘low bar.’ You should too.

What kind of standard is this? Not to take in people according to capacity or capability, not to help people according to need, but to merely meet an ephemeral and emotive demand and to be better than scandalous xenophobes.

Intentional Opacity and Hosam Nafish 

Here is what I think happened with this previously-unknown-now-cancelled Syrian Links Initiative. By way of analogy.

There are a number of cash assistance programs in Turkey, where families receive stipends from budgets furnished by western donors. One distributor wanted to sign people up in the town of Kilis, which is right on the border with Syria, about 50km south of Gaziantep. So they just advertised their office’s location and told people to come and sign up.

Then there was “a near riot” which was described to me by another source as “a riot.” Front windows were broken, beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries were stressed, the distributor’s employees were overwhelmed and the Turkish locality was none too pleased with the insecurity. In the end, the distributor realised it had been a bad idea, and instead began canvassing neighbourhoods with field officers to sign families up.

It is under a similar “if they knew where we were, everyone would line up outside” premise which the Canadian government and its partners in Turkey have operated since the beginning of the refugee program. Through some combination of intentional opacity and a lack of resources most Syrians only hear about Canada in whispers, on social media, traditional media, and of course, through predatory businesses like Go Canada. The refugees seldom actually interact with the Canadian government’s partners on the ground and never with the Canadian government itself.

Now, who do you think this kind of concerted opacity benefits, in terms of a selection pressure towards actually stepping off a plane in Pearson airport? The most affluent refugees of course. The most educated. The most internet and communication savvy. The most socially well-connected.

These are the people who typically find their way to Canada, while the Hosam Nafish’s of the crisis do not know where to start because their ignorance is by design. Of course in the case of the Syrian Links Initiative there were probably other factors at work. Likely the CSS never felt urgency or empathy for those hoping to come to Canada because they simply don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. This happens with NGOs in Turkey; it happens in Canada.

As for Hosam Nafish, I tried to get his story published last year as part of a larger piece on Syrians hoping to come to Canada. Here is an excerpt. I hope you make it to the end.


“He lost his older brother –” warns Walid

— “Tell him to use my real name!” interrupts Hosam (his real name), bug-eyes bugging.

“Maybe that way someone will read my story and bring me to Canada.”


Reluctant to begin, he insists on nargile — “I need to be high” — but once smoking inside Hadrian’s Gate, at one of Antalya’s tourist trap, water-pipe cafes, he refuses to stop before finishing.

The sun sets, dessert is ordered, and ash overspills the tray. Eventually another entire meal arrives. And by the time Hosam’s retelling is done, “This is just a summary I am giving you” (another ubiquitous Syrian refrain), he and his friends rush to catch their last Sunday bus home, up to the hills northwest of the city.

“I went to the army 1st of June, 2010. We didn’t have any internet or social media so we had no knowledge of the reality — they were saying there were terrorists outside and we should kill these terrorists.”

“At one of the demonstrations I saw them hitting the demonstrators, they were carrying flowers and they hit them with [the butts of] their guns. In that moment I wanted to escape, but my family said ‘Don’t, they’ll kill you and us too.’ I returned with the army and they didn’t give me one day off for a whole year.”

He takes long drags and calls impatiently for new coals.

Finally his day off came. Hama was controlled by the regime at that time. Nonetheless, in only the privacy of his mind, he decided to defect. At the second checkpoint that day he was stopped and accused of carrying fake army papers. An officer took his cell phone and some petty cash, leaving Hosam with only his SIM card. They were military police, but denied his urging to call his commanding officer. He spent the night in jail. The next morning an officer agreed his papers were genuine and that he had been well within his rights to move within the city on his day off.

“And I said ‘Give me permission, because I don’t want to get stopped again.’ And he said ‘Okay, we will escort you and be official.’”

They took Hosam in handcuffs, blindfolded, to a new prison. As they led him, “someone smacked me in the balls, from underneath. And I was walking crooked and you should just keep walking and not react, you should go on. And the last one has whips. He is hitting me on the back. It is like a program, each person has something for you.”

“It’s good they hit you, you were on the regime’s side!” Walid interrupts.

“They took off all of my clothes so we are just in our underwear. Then they asked me to strip off my underwear and squat. And I thought they were going to fuck me.”

After a cavity search, the nineteen-year-old was led blindfolded down stairs, asked if he attended demonstrations, and beaten. Once underground, he found himself in a cold room with a pool of blood. Cries of men being tortured surrounded him.

“They were taking the people one by one. They were sending them back in the chair because they couldn’t walk. It was so cold, there was no blankets. It is not organised the prison, the shit water from the toilet is everywhere on the floor and there are cockroaches. And after three hours they asked me to come and see them, but I didn’t have a chance to explain myself or my story.”

Now when he needs to take the edge off, Hosam drinks vodka. Walid and those in his social circle, observant and therefore teetotallers, don’t judge him for it. A cheap litre can be found ten minutes walk from their middle-of-nowhere apartment building.

Hosam didn’t know it at the time, but defection from the Syrian Arab Army was an expanding phenomenon. The suspicions of the security services might have only been probabilistic (in other words, he may not have given himself away). Since that period, academic Samer Abboud explains, “low military morale, rampant defections, loyalist discord about rising deaths, disintegration within its ranks, and mistrust among SAA soldiers have all forced the regime to turn to civilian or non-Syrian violent actors.”

“They open my file — same as last time — and they said, ‘Why did they bring you here? You have no problem.’ I said ‘Sir, I am doing my military service.’ They hit me a lot.”

Things continued that way, first assurances it was all a mistake, then the torture. He saw another inmate return from interrogation shot through the forearm. After nearly a week they handcuffed and blindfolded him again, formally accused him of desertion, and took him to al-Kuboun in Damascus.


Hosam pauses at times for the thousand mile stare. In his relaxed state, sights of Antalya in the background, he’ll borrow the most stylish pair of sunglasses available and pose for a new profile picture. His aspirations were also unserious. He doesn’t eat at KFC now only because he can’t afford it. And he doesn’t meet young women at the mall only because he’s two hours away by public transport. Thoughts of suicide are frequent. 

“In this jail you should just keep your mouth closed — because there is a small window and they are listening always. And they feed you just half a loaf of bread — they are just feeding you to stay alive.”

“They put eight people behind the door with hands up and said, ‘We will mention a name, one by one. And the one we do not mention, he should not make a whisper.’”

He stood still for six and a half hours, “we can’t even move a finger,” his back to guards “watching in shifts.”

Two days later, Hosam was transferred to military jail. “There are seventeen branches and they call it the fifth branch.”

There, high ranking officers took things out on him. “I lost everything in my life. This Colonel said ‘You wanted to escape from the army and join the terrorists,’ and I said ‘No sir, this is not the reality. I love my country.’”

“They put me in the car tire, chest to knees. They break your fingers. And they started to hit me, asking me to count. They make a joke with you — if you say it is eleven, but it is nine, then they start again from the zero. They took me out of the tire after 150 strikes and the Colonel asked me again, ‘Did you want to escape from the army?’ I fainted a few times and they were still hitting me, so I woke up. They don’t care if you are conscious or unconscious.”

Hosam maintained his innocence throughout. He was sent back to his unit on public transportation with a two guard escort. They had shaved his head, another humiliation.

“When they took me to the army, my Colonel and unit didn’t take care of me. They said ‘You are a motherfucker and your sister is a bitch. We are going to fuck your mother and sister. You are a traitor and a liar.’ So they started to play with my nerves. They said, ‘We are going to shoot you just directly now.’”

His unit beat him for three hours, kicking his face, boots on, lighting his beard on fire. Finally he was allowed to rejoin them in a more or less normal capacity. Both his military and his civilian identification had been confiscated.

“Now after all of these things I had a big experience about what they are doing with the people, which I didn’t have before. For the next four months I just worked to go because I realised how terrorist they are. And if they saw a regular person just with a board at the protest they would shoot them. I thought I cannot do this, I cannot kill normal people. In that time, I know if they are going to send us to kill people, I was overthinking, what am I going to do? They are standing behind us and seeing — if I don’t shoot, they are going to kill me. I am always thinking what am I going to do?”

At night, the guys play FIFA on an old Playstation 2, sitting across three beds in the common room. There is an apartment-wide rivalry between Real Madrid and Manchester United. While others are matched up, Hosam prepares homestyle meals.

“He’s a good cook,” vouches Walid. They sit on the floor around the result, scooping chicken out of red sauce with bread, pouring sips of flat pepsi from a plastic two litre bottle.

“I was dying in these four months. They were watching my every movement. I was careful what I was saying every day.”

Hosam surrendered 30,000 Syrian pounds of wages for one day of leave. He went home resolved to defection — “I wanted to be just, they wanted me to be unjust.”

“But I had the same situation, I was in a big jail. They controlled the city.”

He stayed with his parents — his family too poor to consider bribing their way out, fearing their son’s discovery would be the death of them all. They came for him shortly, but the first time he was forewarned. Squeezed behind pipes in the water closet, he held his breath.

Fifteen days later, there was no ahead of time. He was out on the balcony and jumped. And scrambled, balcony to balcony, running through alleys, not stopping until he reached the next district.

He had nothing on him and every road out of the city was check-pointed by the regime. Hosam scavenged discarded bread and walked out of Hama, not on a road, but into the desert.

“I was eating mouldy bread while bombs were dropping. In that area the plane and every kind of gun was attacking.”

Soon hungry and dizzy, he drank “the ground water — still, dirty water.” Shortly he was vomiting, “it was poisoned.”

“There was no doctor, no medicine. I knew my life was nearing an end.”

He had had no choice, he told himself. “No problem. I am not going to kill anyone.”

He accepted that he was going to starve.


[In the original article you’re left hanging for a few pages –]


Six weeks after clearing Hama’s city limits on foot, Hosam made it to a camp near the Turkish border in northwest Idlib. Still penurious, he made his calls from others’ mobiles. The first time he crossed the border, he was caught and turned around by Turkish authorities. On his second attempt, three months later, he succeeded.

After a year scraping by in Istanbul, he heard the outskirts of Antalya had a lower cost of living. The older Walid, also from Hama, to whom he had no previous direct connection, welcomed him when he arrived. 

Hosam worked construction through the spring into the summer until injuring his back. After being laid up a couple weeks it took another six to find a new job. His parents remain in Hama. His plastic phone has no credit.

“And I have found the life here worse and worse. I work ten days and then am not working one month. I don’t have any proof of who I am. Now you can say it is my friends who are supporting me.” He moves apartments often, from bed to bed, outskirt to outskirt.

One Saturday, just before midnight, a gregarious character is going to drive his ramshackle bread van into the city of Antalya to liaise with, argue with, and ultimately exchange aspersions with, two bakers, fellow Syrians, over the wholesale price per loaf. But Hosam won’t ride along with his friends because he is afraid. What will happen if Turkish police ask him for identification?

Calling for human solidarity is a typical way Syrians conclude long testimonies.

“To the many concerned Canadian people, I am here, I don’t want to steal any money. No one has ever mentioned that I did something wrong. And I hope some of the Canadians will help me because of this. Me and my family will respect you or any other person who helps us. You are a good people and I am a human being like you.”


He is not on any UN or IOM list, nor in any Turkish or Canadian database. No papers have arrived to any Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) on his behalf, no church group nervously awaits his news. There is no internet where he sleeps, or at his new job, the overnight shift at a stone factory. But when Hosam has a chance, he punches Arabic into google translate. I hope for a new big brother, he writes.



This is winter in the central #Mediterranean. For every 11 people who have made it to #Italy so far this year, at least 1 person has died. pic.twitter.com/WL5xiItMQ1

— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) January 23, 2017


Back to short posts tomorrow.