Single, male and Syrian: One refugee's harrowing escape from Idlib to Toronto

A rare case of a single Syrian man coming to Canada as a part of the refugee exodus from the Middle East.

Abdul Hadi Berro came to Canada alone because his family was wiped out by war

Abdul Hadi Berro stands in front of his new, but temporary, home in Toronto. (Michael Smee/CBC)

In his 29 years, Abdul Hadi Berro has seen his share of horror.

He has lost two of his brothers to the Syrian civil war that has engulfed the Middle East.

He documented the rape and murder of women and children by Syrian government soldiers — sometimes, he says, while the men of the family were forced to watch.

He stood just metres away as a shell from a government tank killed his father.

And he survived 38 days of torture at the hands of government interrogators — torture that he says included being forced to stand in a hole while his captors defecated and urinated on him.

Yet according to translators at the downtown Toronto hotel where he is living alongside scores of other Syrian refugees, Hadi's story is not unusual. 

And United Nations human rights investigators accused the Syrian government in a report released Monday of "massive and systematized violence" that has resulted in the killing of thousands of people in detention centres in the country's civil war.

"The government has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts," said the report, which was based on 621 interviews as well as documentary footage. 

"Nearly every surviving detainee has emerged from custody having suffered unimaginable abuses," said Paulo Pinheiro,  a UN human rights investigator in a Monday statement.

Documenting the Battle of Idlib

In early 2011, Hadi was an average twenty-something Syrian. He was working in a bakery in his hometown, Idlib, and studying part-time toward his high school graduation diploma. He had dreams of a career in journalism.

Later that year, as Syrians began to protest publicly against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, he got a chance to try his hand at reporting.
From left to right: Hadi's sister Suaad, his mother Raghda, Hadi and another older sister, Khawla, in Beirut in 2013. (Supplied)

Armed only with his cell phone, Hadi began filming and photographing the government troops' crackdown against demonstrators. This included, he says through a translator, filming soldiers as they killed civilians, in what is now known as the First Battle of Idlib.

He began posting his videos to YouTube.

By November of 2011, he fled to neighbouring Lebanon — to escape both the violence and threat of government reprisals for his work. There, he hoped to enrol in university and wait out the civil war that was quickly enveloping his country.

Deaths in the family

But his stay in Lebanon did not last long. 

Hadi's father and two of his four brothers had become active in the armed resistance against Assad government.

When one of those brothers was killed in the fighting, Hadi became more determined than ever, he said, to show the world what Assad's soldiers were doing to their own people. By the summer of 2012, he had returned to his home town to bury his brother.

Over the course of 2012, he ramped up his amateur journalism, posting more and more videos to YouTube, and taking thousands of still photos.

What was he seeing?

"A lot of things," he says in Arabic through Toronto translator Zakariya Ali.

"It's devastating emotionally. He'd seen the military come into a village and kill all the women and children. They killed children in front of their parents. In one day he saw a hundred or 200 people die — some from torture, burning, shooting them...," said Ali.

Among the casualties during the next summer, of 2013, was a second brother.
Hamza, Hadi's brother, was 33-years-old when he was killed in Syria. (Supplied)

Then, just two days later, Hadi was filming a Syrian troop advance on his own town, Idlib. He had moved 20 metres from his family home, when it was flattened by a Syrian government tank shell.

His father was inside. He was killed instantly.

A month after his father's death, he says, Syrian intelligence finally tracked him down. his phone, containing, he says, 14 gigabytes worth of photos detailing Syrian government atrocities, was confiscated. Hadi himself was imprisoned for 38 days and tortured regularly.

By the time he was released, in September 2013, he'd lost more than 17 kilograms.

Syrian refugee Abdul Hadi Berro, who now lives in Toronto, thanks Canadians for all of their support. (translator voice included) 1:04

Walking the halls of the Super 8

Hadi was by then determined to never again be captured. He caught a bus across the border into Lebanon, and registered as a refugee at a UN camp there. He then found a room, along with a fellow Syrian exile, and began the long wait for a new home country.

He says Canada was not his first choice.

"When I was assigned Canada, I didn't want it."

He was concerned about the climate and the culture, which he feared would be too foreign to his own. But what he subsequently found out about this country by searching online led him to embrace it.  "There were lots of young people, and multiculturalism...I saw it was the best for me."

He was sponsored by the Canadian government and arrived here on Dec. 18, one of the few single men who was being allowed in, a policy that Hadi understands, but disagrees with.

Ottawa discourages young, single Syrian males from seeking refugee status out of fear that ISIS will try to infiltrate Canada by planting moles in the refugee stream.

But according to Hadi, that is unlikely to happen.

"The young men are coming here because they don't want to fight; don't want to join the army, don't want to die," he said. "The ones who want to fight, they're going to fight — there."

Besides, he said, after going through the intense UN screening process and later questioning — a near daily ritual for 14 months — at the Canadian embassy in Beirut, he believes it would be almost impossible for a potential plant to fool the investigators.

"Trust me. No way is an ISIS guy going to get through the vetting I went through. They'd die of old age before they got through," he said with a laugh.

Now he says he'd like to bring his mother over to Canada.

After the death of his father, she stayed in Idlib, with two of her daughters and one of her surviving sons. His remaining three siblings have fled to other parts of the Middle East.

In the meantime, Hadi spends his days walking aimlessly through the halls of the Super 8 hotel in Toronto's Chinatown, where he's been housed since arriving here just before Christmas. But with limited English skills, no job and no leads on housing, he is becoming increasingly anxious.

He talks restlessly about his desire to learn English, to buy his own home some day, and perhaps enrol in a community college, where he'd like to study journalism.