British Columbia

Family interrupted: Syrian refugees' story of torture, imprisonment and reunion in Canada

When Yasin and Mamon AlHomsi embraced at YVR late last year, their tearful hug lasted more than a minute. Here's the story of imprisonment, torture and 15 years of separation that explains the joy of that reunion.

Tears and joy as Syrian family reunites in B.C.

CBC News Vancouver at 6

6 years ago
It's been 15 years since Mohamad-Mamon Alhomsi has seen his two sons 0:55

It was a tearful, minute-long hug at Vancouver International Airport that was watched around the world. 

Syrian refugees Yasin and Majd Alhomsi were reunited with their father, Mamon Alhomsi, after 15 years of seperation.

"I don't have any words [that] can express this feeling," Yasin said at the time. 

Since that emotional December day, Yasin and Mamon have found their words. They recently sat down with CBC to tell their story of heartbreak, torture, imprisonment and love.

1990: A year of big dreams

Yasin Alhomsi was born in 1991, the same year his father Mamon Alhomsi was elected an independent MP in Syria. (Handout)

In 1990, anything seemed possible for Mamon Alhomsi. He had a new baby boy, Yasin, and he was elected an independent MP in Syria. 

Mamon's political activism has earned him international attention: former U.S. President George W. Bush has described him as among the "innocent advocates for a free Syria". 

2001: The dream ends

But his views also earned him the ire of the Syrian regime. 

In 2001, Mamon was arrested, and, along with another parliamentarian, eventually convicted of "attempting to change the constitution by illegal means" and "inciting racial and sectarian strife," according to Human Rights Watch.

When Mamon was released five years later, he feared for his life, and made the difficult decision to flee Syria.  

"At around 3 a.m. I gathered my family members around," he said.

"Some of them I kissed while they were sleeping and I said goodbye to the older ones and left." 

Yasin's voice falters when he recalls that night. 

"I didn't see my father. Because I was asleep. It's very difficult when you wake up and you didn't see your hero." 

2011: History repeats itself

Yasin Alhomsi says his friends used this image on their Facebook profiles after he was imprisoned in Syria in 2011.

In November 2011, on his way home from university, Yasin was apprehended at a police checkpoint. He says he was blindfolded, handcuffed and taken to prison. 

It was the beginning of a seven-month ordeal, during which Yasin says he was repeatedly interrogated and tortured.

He recalls his feet and legs being beaten with sticks.  

"I  cannot walk the first two months [unless] somebody helped me stand up." 

He says the guards insisted that his father was giving him money to spread anti-government messages, or that he was a student leader in the university. 

Mamon, who by this time had arrived in Canada as a refugee, learned of his son's disappearance. 

"It was enormous pain. But I knew that when I clashed with the regime my entire family would be endangered." 

2012: A precarious freedom

Yasin Alhomsi says when he was released from seven months of prison in Syria, his family didn't recognize him. He'd lost about 50 kilograms. (Handout)

Yasin couldn't believe it when he was finally dropped off at his mother's home. 

And at first, she didn't recognize her son —  he'd lost about 50 kg (110 pounds) in prison, and his hair was shorn.

Yasin had been warned not to contact his father, but within an hour, he picked up the phone.

There was silence at the other end. 

"I thought, it's maybe a problem in the cellular company," Yasin says. "But after the two times, three times, he cannot talk."

"I was so happy when I was speaking to him I just couldn't express myself," explained Mamon. "I just wanted to hear his voice, to believe that he is actually back home." 

Though he was free, Yasin lived under the constant threat of arrest and military service, amidst a worsening civil war.  

Meanwhile, Mamon was fighting for his sons to join him in Canada. 

He says he was told it would take a few months. It took five years.

2015: Together at last

Mamon Alhomsi (left) cries with joy as he reunites with his sons at YVR. (CBC)

When Yasin and his brother Majd finally arrived at Vancouver International Airport on Dec. 10, 2015, their father was waiting for them. 

So were their half-siblings Mustafa, 9, and Mariam, 4, who were born after Mamon fled Syria, and so had never met their older brothers.  

That night, all four siblings slept on the floor of their small Burnaby apartment.

Yasin says he "cannot believe" the "wonderful" feeling of waking up next to his family.  

2016: Daring to dream again

Yasin Alhomsi, centre, recently celebrated his 26th birthday with, from left, his father, Mamon, and his siblings Mustafa, Mariam and Majd. (Handout)

Yasin and Majd have a long road ahead to build their lives in Canada. 

They are enrolled in English courses at Vancouver Community College, and have begun a youth employment program through Work B.C. 

Yasin says he'd eventually like to do a Master's degree in Finance. 

As for his painful history, he says he's too happy now to dwell on the past. 

"When I see my father, I forget a lot of things. A lot of bad things happened to me," he says. 

And two months after his sons arrived, Mamon says he feels like they've only been here for an hour. 

"I haven't woken up from the dream yet." 

To hear the full audio, click the link labelled: Finding refuge: a story of heartbreak, torture, imprisonment and love.


Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at or @crolfsen

With translation help from Nihal Elwan