British Columbia

Hidden trauma haunts Kurdi family as it tries to heal in Canada

Mohammad Kurdi has a secret stashed away inside a closet next to the kitchen in the townhouse he shares with his family.

The untold story of their escape from Syria still stirs painful memories

Mohammad Kurdi has created a mini-barbershop in a closet off of the kitchen in his home. He comes from generations of barbers in Syria. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

Mohammad Kurdi has a secret stashed away inside a closet next to the kitchen in the townhouse he shares with his family. 

But it is a secret he is willing to share. He tugs at the closest doors and reveals all: a fully functional, single-stand barbershop, complete with professional chair, tools and mirror.

"This is my main profession ever since I opened my eyes to the world. In Syria, my dad, grandpa, my whole family, they are all barbers.  Most of my relatives have salons and they are barbers as well," he said with a smile.

Mohammad is the uncle of Alan Kurdi, the toddler photographed last year lying face down on a beach when he tried to cross into Turkey with his family.  It has become one of the defining images of the Syrian refugee crisis and prompted Canada to clear the way for Mohammad  and his family to move to Vancouver 10 months ago.

While all of them have had challenges adjusting to living in a new country, Mohammad has possibly faced the greatest struggles.

The closet barbershop isn't meant to be a full-fledged business. He said he is hoping to keep his cutting and clipping skills honed while he looks for full-time work.

But he faces new challenges in his chosen craft, challenges that stem from a harrowing incident in Syria that neither he nor his family have spoken about publicly — until now.

" I do not like to remember this day because … it is something I want to forget," Mohammad said, his eyes brimming with tears.

A dangerous escape

The family was making its way on foot to the border with Turkey in 2012, along with many other Syrians desperate to escape the war.  At a checkpoint, Mohammad said a guard challenged him, then dragged him to a building where the commander of the checkpoint interrogated him for what seemed like hours.

Mohammad Kurdi, 48, becomes emotional as recalls the harrowing story of the family's escape from Syria. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

The commander then told him he could leave. 

Once outside though, Mohammad said the guard told him the commander had, in fact, issued a chilling order — to kill him.

"He threw me to the ground, grabbed a rifle and started to hit me with the bottom of it on my back and my legs. He just kept hitting me," Mohammad said. "My children and wife were seeing this, crying, begging him to let me go."

"Then he called my son Shergo. He told me to lay on the ground with my hands behind my back. He loaded the gun and told my son to come and shoot me. Shergo said no. He started to cry.  "

Shergo was 12 years old at the time. Mohammad said the guard put the rifle in his son's hands. 

"I prepared to die and then, with a cold heart, the guard tells me he was just kidding. He told us to leave and not look back." 

Mohammad limped away, he said, supported by his wife as they slowly resumed their trek north. 

Now, he cannot stand for long without suffering pain in his back and leg.

Shergo, now 15, suffers from flashbacks.

"I see the face of the man who gave me the gun to kill my dad," he said. "I have memories."

Family tensions

Mohammed, 48, is a proud man who wants to be able to support his family. When he first arrived, he worked at the salon owned by his sister, Tima, who sponsored the family and welcomed them into her home with her husband. 

But both say there were few customers who wanted a barber's services.

Mohammad decided to leave. The relationship between the siblings became tense. 

Tima admitted to being impatient with Mohammad as he worried about the future in Canada, telling him to lower his expectations. 

"Yes, you're going to end up working minimum wage," she said she told him. "You are not going to be a businessman." 

It all came to a head in June, when Mohammad told Tima the family was moving out. 

"We just wanted our independence. It is normal wanting our privacy. Two families can never live in one house because everyone has different views," he said.

But the rift was serious.

Tima said at first she did not know where they had gone. There was no communication. Later, she discovered they were living at a shelter for refugees, crowded into a small apartment that they said had mice and noisy neighbours.

It was a difficult time for both of them. Then, their brother — Alan's father, Abdullah — became gravely ill in northern Iraq. His sickness was the catalyst for their reconciliation. 

Tima threw herself into helping them find a home. They moved into a townhouse in September. 

Moving forward

The Kurdi family outside their new home. L-R, Heveen, 16, Mohammad, 48, Ranim, 10, Sherwan, 1, Ghouson, 35, Rezan, 8, Shergo, 15. (Claude Vickery/CBC)

On a recent evening, Tima  grinned as she played with the youngest child, one-year-old Sherwan, as he danced to a Syrian song in the family's living room.

Mohammad watched, surrounded by family.

"Life is not for me anymore. It is for my children," he said. "My wishes and dreams are mainly to sacrifice the rest of my life for my kids. They can choose the path they choose.They can each have a goal in life, and I will be by their side through it all."

That sacrifice begins with a boy from the community where they now live. He slips into Mohammad's closet "barbershop" and Mohammad sets to work with his shears, his brush and his years of expertise. 

He has a new life.


Laura Lynch


CBC Radio correspondent Laura Lynch has reported from many parts of the world, most recently Europe and the Middle East. She has also worked as the CBC's Washington correspondent and as a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. She is based in Vancouver.