Leaving Syria: Life in Van as a refugee

Part 2 of a four-part series about how one Syrian refugee is adjusting to life in B.C. Read Part 1 of Mohammed’s story.

The elderly man I met in prison years ago will forever remain ingrained in my memory. He was an inspiring man who gave me strength and resilience while we were both prisoners in a jail in the Syrian city of Homs. About our daily, living Hell, he used to say to me; “Son, you see all of this? One day it’s all going to be a story to tell.” Back then I never believed him and thought he was just comforting me. All I wish now is that he survived the experience and was also able to tell his story.

The act that made me a prisoner

Three years ago I was writing an exam during my fourth-year of medical school when Syrian state security forces marched into my classroom and arrested me. Documentation and criticism of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s human rights violations on social media resulted in my imprisonment. I had been detained twice before for challenging Assad’s totalitarianism but this time was the worst. I spent 120 days in some of the worst detention centers in Syria. During my enforced disappearance, I was regularly tortured. I won’t go into the details, but I consider myself lucky to be alive and not to have joined the list of Assad’s victims.  Several people were tortured to death every day. In 2014, the world was shocked by the leaked photographs of torture and execution of more than 28,000 victims committed by the Syrian government in these centers. The photos were smuggled outside Syria by a military photographer after it was his job to take pictures of detainees who died under torture. He defected after recognizing one of his friend’s in a pile of corpses, and went by the code name his Caesar after escaping the country.

Daily torture as ritual

In that dark, cold and damp torture basement, I made a promise to myself that if I ever made it out alive and saw the sunlight again, I would go as far away as I could from that terrible place. I owe my life to my brother, Ahmad, who bribed a judge to set me free. Immediately after being released a few days before New Year’s Eve in 2014, I returned to my home city of Hasaka one last time to say goodbye to my family, whom I haven’t seen since. Then, I fled to neighboring Lebanon.

My escape

I was amazed that a three-hour ride from Damascus to Beirut took me to an entirely different world. There were no military check points on the ground or jet-fighters in the sky. Though life in Lebanon was peaceful, it had many challenges. The limited resources of the small country were already overwhelmed; currently one in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.

UNHR

Sixty million people are displaced worldwide who do not have anything close to a normal life. I was one of them in Lebanon. Living in an unwelcoming atmosphere is very difficult. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed on displaced Syrians. In spite of the risk, I had to be out after curfew working late to afford living. I made $20 a day washing cars from 9 AM to 9 PM for a car rental company which went very quickly on food and transportation. I was able to survive on that little amount of money only because I had a cousin there who housed me. In a desperate attempt to seek help, I decided to register with the UNHCR. I waited 8 hours in line at the crowded registration centre and thought of going home many times because it felt hopeless. More than 1.5 million Syrians have registered with the UN refugee agency in Lebanon alone.

After living for months in Lebanon unsure of the future and realizing that the war in Syria was not going to end anytime soon, I started to give up hope. Then, in April 2014, I received a call from the UNHCR that gave me a bit of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The voice on the other end said “You might be a potential candidate for a possible resettlement opportunity in an unknown country. Are you interested?” “Yes I am!” I replied. I felt I had hope again. I was offered an interview the next morning at the same place I visited two months previously to seek help. The resettlement process started with me sharing my story just as the old man had envisioned.

In my next post, I will continue this story by sharing more about my journey to Canada and my first days here.

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