Racism forces Sudbury family to keep 'low profile' about their Syrian heritage

A Sudbury-born man of Syrian descent said his family has experienced an influx of discrimination in the last few weeks.

I said, 'no we're not the terrorist kind' ... And he said, 'Well then you must be ISIS’

This weekend a Jesse Alkhoury — a Sudbury resident of Syrian descent — was asked if he was a terrorist. He said it's part of a trend he's seeing in the city ever since news came that Canada would welcome more Syrian refugees to Canada — and after the terrorist attacks in Paris (Roger Corriveau/CBC)
Jesse Alkhoury was born and raised in Sudbury. He's of Syrian descent. He says he's seeing more racism since the news came that Canada would welcome more Syrian refugees. Even more so after the Paris attack. He joined us in studio to talk about it. 8:00

A Sudbury-born man of Syrian descent said his family has experienced an influx of discrimination in the last few weeks.

Jesse Alkhoury was at a social event in Sudbury this past weekend when he said someone asked him what his background was.

Alkhoury was born in Sudbury and his family has lived here for more than 40 years. He told the man his background was Syrian.

"He instantly put his hands around my waist and asked if I was packing any dynamite. And I said, no we're not the terrorist kind. And he said, 'Well then you must be ISIS.'"

Alkhoury said the interaction made his stomach turn.

Alkhoury's cousin, who lives in Syria, was shot in the head during fighting last week. The man now has permanent brain damage.

Much of Alkhoury's extended family is still living in Syria and is experiencing the violence there.  His wife, who is Syrian-born, only recently was able to come to Canada.

Alkhoury said Syrian refugees are being painted as terrorists — but in reality, they are trying to escape the exact same terrorism that has happened in places like Paris.

"Everybody that has fled or left the middle east, regardless of what their situation was, has generally been to get away from these kinds of terrible acts that are constantly being committed all the time," he said.

"People come [to Canada] to flee these kinds of crimes, and they come here for freedom and to be able to live their life in peace."

Not an isolated event

Alkhoury said the incident over the weekend wasn't a one-off occurrence. He said his family has noticed people in Sudbury making comments over the last several weeks.

"Going out shopping, people say, 'what a terrible mistake it is to bring in Syrian refugees, that they're all terrorists from over there," Alkhoury said.

He said the comments only started when news came that Canada would be welcoming more Syrian refugees into Canada. The terrorist attacks in Paris over the weekend — which ISIS has taken responsibility for — made it worse, he said.

Alkhoury said his family was shocked as they had never encountered comments like this in Sudbury before. For the first time, members of his family in Sudbury feel that they should keep a lower profile, and avoid telling people their background, he said.
Throughout history, people become fearful of groups or issues they don’t understand, says Dieter Buse, professor emeritus in the history department at Laurentian University in Sudbury. (CBC)

History repeats itself

Alkhoury and his family aren't the first group to be painted as something they aren't, according to Sudbury-based historian Dieter Buse.

"The Germans [in northeastern Ontario] after the  WWII were called Nazis, even if they may have been resisters or opponents of nazism. Or some of them may have been living in Sudbury before and during the war," he said.

"But after the war they were branded."

Buse experienced that firsthand when his family immigrated to Canada in 1948 and went to school with a German accent.

"I was beaten up. I was accused of things that didn't even apply to my parents, who were refugees," he said.

Throughout history, people become fearful of groups or issues they don't understand. He said that appears to be the case with people's views of Syrian refugees.

As for Alkhoury, he said there have been people in Sudbury who have reached out in the last few weeks and offered support. He said his family has worked hard for decades to show their dedication and commitment to the community, and it's hard to watch opinions of them change so quickly.

"For all of this to [happen] in a place like Sudbury is very unnerving."