Inside the Syrian refugee crisis

Zakaria Abdou and his sons, Mohammed (centre) and Rezan, in Montreal. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)
Zakaria Abdou and his sons, Mohammed (centre) and Rezan, in Montreal. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)

The stories of two families who left everything behind in Syria to chase a better life only to be part of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. 

by Michael Petrou for MacLean’s magazine, July 17, 2015

Rezan Abdou, 35, soft-spoken and a little brooding, sits wearing a black shirt tightly buttoned over his thick chest in an almost empty apartment in a working-class Montreal neighbourhood near the Côte-Vertu Metro station.

He’s lived here for only a couple of weeks, with his father, Zakaria, his mother, Rokan, and his brother Mohammed. Before that, it was the local YMCA. Before the YMCA, less than a month ago, was Istanbul, Turkey, along with his sister, Midya, and another brother, Ali. And before Istanbul was Aleppo, Syria—an ancient, diverse and once glorious city that is now rubble.

It was in Aleppo that Rezan learned to dance.

“It is a world that is different from what I see in everyday life,” he says, explaining what he loved about dance and theatre. “It exists inside your mind and body.”

He was lucky there, to have the freedom and the means to study these arts, to give expression to that world in his mind and body. Rezan’s father grew up poor and never went to school himself, instead working as a shoemaker since the age of seven, when his own father died. Zakaria wanted something different for his children.

“I suffered a lot during my life,” he says, his face weathered, a bushy moustache surrounded by grey stubble. “I wanted to compensate for that by giving education to my children. Whatever they asked for, I worked hard to be able to give to them. And then what happened during these last four years, happened. And almost everything was lost.”

What happened during these last four years was an uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which grew into a civil war, which has all but destroyed a country.

Assad’s regime, responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths through the bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods, poison-gas attacks and the murder of detainees, still holds large chunks of territory in western Syria, including most of Damascus.

Among the many rebel groups and militias that have sprung up since the war began, one calling itself Islamic State has taken over much of northeastern Syria and declared a nightmarish caliphate in which women and children are enslaved, traded and raped; minorities are exterminated; dissenters are crucified; and captives, including Western journalists and aid workers, are grotesquely killed on film.

More than 250,000 Syrians are dead. Some 12 million, more than half of Syria’s pre-war population, are displaced. About eight million are displaced inside Syria. This month, the United Nations said more than four million have fled as refugees to other countries.

Family photos are the only mementoes the Abdous brought from Syria. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)
Family photos are the only mementoes the Abdous brought from Syria. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)

The Abdou family is a speck of ash blown from this fire. Another is the al-Dandachi family, who live a short drive away in the Montreal suburb of Laval. The Dandachis arrived in Canada last June. After a year in Canada, they are more settled and comfortable in their new home than are the Abdous.

Jasim, the family patriarch, proudly says that already, his youngest son, Hamza, speaks French like a Québécois. Jasim says he wants to learn French, too, so he can tell Quebecers and other Canadians how grateful he is to have been welcomed here…

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