Thursday May 11, 2017

"Am I going to die in here?"

(Aiken Lao)

Listen to Full Episode 45:36

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[WARNING: SUBJECT MATTER CONTAINS SCENES OF GRAPHIC VIOLENCE]

Mohammad Al Masalma is one of the 40,000 Syrian newcomers in Canada. By now, you've probably become quite familiar with the stories - families being met by the prime minister at the airport with winter jackets, and the newcomers, expressing relief and gratitude to Canada for giving them a new home. In the following months, a more serious tone, with families still struggling to adapt and find work.

"It was the best feeling in the world while protesting… We have the freedom to say whatever you want. After like 40 years of oppression in Syria, this is priceless. This is the best thing that could ever happen to Syrians… We wanted freedom."

But now, at a time when the spotlight seems to be dimming, it's important to hear Mohammad's story of how his country was taken away from him. He was a student at Damascus University when he joined anti-government protests to fight for his freedom during the revolution. It eventually led to his arrest and detainment by the Syrian regime. He was thrown in prison, where he was tortured, and nearly killed.

But even before the Syrian revolution erupted, Mohammad's story really began in the old city of Daraa, with some wise, yet ominous words from his father.

"THE WALLS HAVE EARS."

From an early age, Mohammad's dad always taught him to never trust the Syrian government. He was told stories about people that were jailed and killed for speaking out against the government. He learned about the 1982 Hama massacre, when the Syrian army killed thousands of people in order to quell the uprising against the president at that time, Hafez al-Assad. "Growing up, I was really scared of the government… Everyone was saying that the government has spies everywhere, so be careful, don't speak ill about the government," Mohammad remembers being told.

"Everyone will say 'Shhhh, don't say anything, just whisper it, because the walls have ears. And they will hear you, and they will put you in jail, or even kill you.''

Those talks with his father were eye-opening, and scary. Whether Mohammad was hearing stories of people being sent to prison for life, or the thousands massacred in Hama, his father's message was always clear -- no one opposes the Syrian government without paying a price. It was an important lesson in a country run by a dictator.

But after three decades of ruling with an iron fist, that dictator died on June 10, 2000. It marked the end of a dark era for many Syrians. That culture of fear fostered by Hafez al-Assad was giving way to a sense of hope. Assad's 34-year old son was ushered into power.

Mohammad

Mohammad (blue shirt) and his younger brother Mihyar as kids

A doctor, with little experience in the military, Bashar al-Assad was seen as a progressive president, who was ready to lead a more moderate regime. The economy boomed, relationships with neighbouring countries formed, and the rise of the internet opened up communication with the world.

But that newfound hope soon faded when al-Assad's family intervened to re-establish a heavy military presence with high security measures. By the time Mohammad got to high school, he became frustrated with the inability to voice his opinions. "Everyone will say 'Shhh, don't say anything, just whisper it, because the walls have ears. And they will hear you, and they will put you in jail, or even kill you,''' Mohammad said.

Mohammad eventually enrolled at Damascus University to study English literature, where he thought that things would be different. He looked forward to meeting others that had similar aspirations, and engage with peers that shared his political views. But that wasn't the case. He quickly learned that the government had full control of the education system too. Only those affiliated with the government got high marks in classes. 

"With one phone call to the professor, and then, they would have the mark they want. And I was like, 'Seriously? I mean we are in university. This is like the highest educational institution you're going to get.' My friend was laughing at me, and he said, 'Welcome to Syria, my friend."

SYRIA/

Syrian residents greet soldiers during their withdrawal from Daraa city in southern Syria, May 5, 2011 (REUTERS)

DARAA MASSACRE SPARKS THE REVOLUTION

For the next three years, Mohammad kept his head down, studied hard, and didn't rock the boat. But in that fourth year, everything changed. The Arab Spring was sweeping through the region. Democratic uprisings took hold in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Meanwhile, Syrians were quietly taking notice.

"There is this huge river of blood pouring down the street of those people who are being killed. I was really shaking. I couldn't believe my eyes. What is this happening in my city? This is happening in Syria? What is going on?"

"You can feel, like people are really cautious. Some of them are just at the edge of their seats, just waiting for something. And they just wanted someone to break that fear, and to do something. And they were like, look at the other countries… They made a change," Mohammad thought.

After children were arrested and tortured for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school, the city of Daraa erupted in protests. At the time, Mohammad was just a few streets away in his family home, visiting for the weekend, when those peaceful protests turned into a massacre.

Graffiti

'It's your turn, doctor': The anti-Assad graffiti scrawled on a school wall in Daara that angered authorities so much that 23 schoolboys were rounded up and tortured in a move which sparked protests across Syria. (Associated Press)

"There is this huge river of blood pouring down the street of those people who are being killed. I was really shaking. I couldn't believe my eyes. What is this happening in my city? This is happening in Syria? What is going on?"

That bloody day in Daraa will forever be etched in Syrian history. It was the day that families marched to protest the wrongful imprisonment and torture of 23 teenagers, and when security forces fired live rounds into the crowds, killing dozens of people. That day also sparked a revolution, and set Syria ablaze with anger.

Mohammad didn't hesitate to join the protests. "It was the best feeling in the world while protesting… We have the freedom to say whatever you want. After like 40 years of oppression in Syria, this is priceless. This is the best thing that could ever happen to Syrians… We wanted freedom," he recalls.

LEBANON/

Protesters chant slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a protest in solidarity with Syria's anti-government protesters. (REUTERS)

ARRESTED AND TORTURED

In those first weeks and months of the revolution, there was a strong sense of unity among the protesters. But shortly after a siege in Homs began taking countless lives, tanks and regime forces started rolling into Daraa. The city was put under complete lockdown.

"I was really devastated and destroyed. Am I going to stay here all my life?  I started remembering those stories that my father used to tell me, when that people stayed there for 25 years and some of them died in prison. Am I that person? Am I going to die in here?"

"You couldn't leave the house, ever. They allowed only women just to get out of their houses from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., just two hours, to go grocery shopping," Mohammad remembers.

One day, during a neighbourhood sweep, military forces walked into Mohammad's family home, and accused Mohammad and his two brothers of terrorism. "They put us three against the wall, on our knees, and blindfolded us, and our hands cuffed. And then the soldiers put the guns to the back of our heads, and they said for the final time, 'Where are the guns?'"

SYRIA/

Syrians walk past damaged buildings in Homs January 23, 2012. (REUTERS)

SYRIA-CRISIS/

Residents look for belongings amid damage from what activists said were air strikes by forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Saida village, in Deraa province, February 1, 2015. (REUTERS/Wsam Almokdad )

After being unable to provide any answers, Mohammad and his brothers were arrested and taken to a nearby prison, where they were interrogated and tortured. During the interrogation, officers continued to demand that Mohammad give up information. "He started to electrocute me. It feels like you put your hand in, the like, electrical socket. I remember I was, like laying down the ground shaking while he's just laughing and asking me 'Just tell me what I want to know! I won't stop until you tell me!'"

Later that day, he was thrown into a tiny prison with 25 others. After weeks of being detained, he wondered if he'd make it out alive. "I was really devastated and destroyed. Am I going to stay here all my life? I started remembering those stories that my father used to tell me when that people stayed there for 25 years and some of them died in prison.... Am I that person? Am I going to die in here?" Mohammad wondered.

SYRIA-CRISIS/KERRY-REFUGEES

An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp, where Mohammad and his family were placed after fleeing Syria. The camp holds roughly 115,000 Syrian refugees, about 12 km from the Syrian border. (REUTERS/Mandel Ngan/Pool)

ESCAPING WAR AND COMING TO CANADA

A month later, Mohammad and his brothers were brought in front of a military judge, where the judge claimed that their arrests were a mistake. After an entire month of imprisonment and brutal torture, they were finally released. When Mohammad saw the light of day, he struggled to get his thoughts straight.

"I'm really sad about the people who are still in Syria, who can't leave - the people who are detainees in prison and have been tortured every day and nobody is thinking about them."

"At that moment, I was thinking, are we that forgotten? I mean, are all the detainees and prisoners really forgotten by the people? And nobody was thinking about us? And then, I was like, okay, this is a chance for another life, I just got like an opportunity for a new life."

Mo at the airport

Mohammad just arriving in Canada at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. The message on the balloon reads: Welcome Masalma (his last name)

Soon afterwards, Mohammad and his family fled Syria and found safety in Jordan, where they were placed in the Zaatari refugee camp. Mohammad was just one of the 5-million refugees that have fled Syria since the Assad regime began its ruthless crackdown six years ago. He spent three years in Jordan before discovering the World University Service of Canada -- an organization that sponsors young refugees and helps to provide them with a post-secondary education. And after being accepted into the program, Mohammad left his family and started a new life in Canada.

Now, he's proud to be a new Canadian. It's something he doesn't take for granted, but he still hurts for his homeland, and the people he left behind. "I'm really sad about the people who are still in Syria, who can't leave - the people who are detainees in prison and have been tortured every day and nobody is thinking about them… Those are the people who we should focus the light on."