By Mackenzie Scrimshaw
Local Syrian activists will take to the streets of Halifax on Saturday to commemorate the second anniversary of the Syrian Revolution for Freedom.
The walk is part of the Worldwide March for Syria, which is scheduled for Mar.15-17 in cities around the globe.
“It’s one of my dreams for people to hit the streets and stand up against the regime,” said Omar Isso, a co-founder of Justice and Freedom for Syria (JFS).
The Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011, has entered into its third year and its effects are felt here in Halifax. The Peninsula is home to a substantial Syrian community, which consists of supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allies of the opposition.
These groups have clashed at previous JFS events, including its weekly public awareness campaigns at Victoria Park. Mohamed Masalmeh, a founder of JFS, says these confrontations have occasionally turned violent and required police intervention.
A fragmented population
Isso immigrated to Canada 19 years ago from the Al-Hasakah province in northeastern Syria, home to a large Kurdish population. He said the current situation in Syria has caused about one million Syrians to flee the country. He encountered roughly 50,000 refugees last week at the Domiz Refugee Camp in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq where he volunteered.
“That place is not for humans,” says Isso.
About 100,000 Syrians are currently in prison – “a hell” Isso endured for 11 years.
When the previous regime, that of Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, discovered Isso’s affiliation with a leftist group called the Communist Party for Action, they jailed him from 1981 to 1992. He says he ended up in a political prison in Aleppo, Syria.
Isso was tortured for more than a decade. He says the guards treated the prisoners disgracefully; they defecated on some and sexually assaulted others. Some guards even used the prisoners’ flesh to butt out their cigarettes.
Isso says he would not survive imprisonment in Syria today under Bashar’s rule.
To Masalmeh, Assad is more of a gang leader than he is a president.
“He’s got no leadership,” says Masalmeh.
Masalmeh was born in Germany and has never lived in Syria. He did, however, frequent the now war-torn country throughout his childhood and adolescence to visit his extended family. He said Assad’s regime has killed 120 of his family members, who were anywhere from 10 months to 85-years-old.
Assad’s regime has killed about 70,000 Syrians, and according to Masalmeh roughly 5,000 of these were children.
But Roy Khoury disagrees with these numbers. He moved to Canada 22 years ago from Tartus, a city of 700,000 on the Mediterranean Sea. He says that this death toll has been fabricated – in large part, by western media.
Khoury said Syria is different in reality than it appears in the news.
“All the reporters that go to Syria, they give you the picture they want,” says Khoury. “The media shows only the conflicted areas of the country.”
Khoury insists Assad is not a “bad guy.”
“Why are you asking the government to stop killing? That’s his job. The president, that’s his job: to protect his country.”
Khoury says Assad is protecting civilians. “If you ask any Syrian there, they will tell you, ‘We are happy. We need our country back. We support Bashar al-Assad.”
He says the leader is not at fault. He says the west – that is, the United States and a handful of European countries – are sending al-Qaida into Syria to weaken the country.
“I like him,” says Khoury of Assad. “That doesn’t mean I want him forever.”
Khoury might not want him to hold office forever, but he does want to see Assad’s face when he walks into work every morning.
Mary’s Place Café I and II
Khoury has hung the leader’s portrait at Mary’s Place Café II on Spring Garden Road. Khoury is the restaurant’s owner and chef.
He also owns Mary’s Place Café I on Robie Street, where the same photo previously hung. Margueritte Samaha took over the restaurant and asked Khoury two years ago to take the photo down.
Why? “He’s not her president,” said Khoury, explaining Samaha is Lebanese.
It was Khoury’s choice to hang up the photographs. “We support the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” he said, hastening to add that he displayed the images before the conflict began.
Khoury said the picture’s presence has affected his business; local Syrians stopped eating at his restaurants last year.
“They come here to talk to me, but they hate me,” says Khoury.
He says his business no longer depends on local Syrians, but, “they’re welcome all the time.”
Masalmeh says he would never eat at Mary’s Place Café. The decision to keep Assad’s photo on the wall disgusts him.
If I see his [Assad’s] picture up anywhere I’m taking it down – legally or illegally,” says Masalmeh.
He also says Assad’s followers are encouraging the president and his regime to continue to commit their crimes.
Isso can’t imagine how people continue to respect Assad.
“If I could, I would destroy all photos of Bashar.”