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Interview with Mohammed Alsaleh: fighting oppression in Syria, building a life in Canada, advocating for refugees, and discovering Starbucks

A few weeks ago I interviewed Mohammed Alsaleh: a 27 year-old refugee from al-Hasakah, Syria, a new Canadian, and a powerful advocate for refugee issues. I met Mohammed in a busy coffee shop in Vancouver. His slight build and warm demeanor disguised the force of his personality, and the stories of struggle he had to tell.  

Mohammed fled Syria in 2014 after being arrested and tortured for his involvement as a videographer in the early days of the war in Syria. He works at the Immigrants Services Society of British Columbia (ISS of BC), helping refugees and immigrants to Canada resettle and adjust to their new home. His family members are currently refugees in Turkey, and expect to immigrate to Canada in 2017. During his time in Canada he has met both HRH Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We talked about the early days of the Syrian Civil War, his escape from his home country, the many layers of the Syrian conflict, his hopes for the future, and what it’s like to work at the ISS of BC here in Vancouver. 

Q: What was your life in Syria like before 2011?

A: Before 2011, I was a completely different person. I was a medical student. My dream was to treat cancer, after losing two cousins to it. I dreamed of treating this disease.

Q: What was daily life like as a medical student under the Assad regime?

A: You know—Syria is a lovely place; an amazing place to live…living there, with the product of tens of thousands of years of civilization was quite an awesome thing. We had such a wonderful life, and although the Assad regime was cracking down in terms of political freedoms—other than that it was good. We had everything, a very modern, progressive society. The Assad regime took a more progressive approach than other governments in the region, so that produced a better, more liberal situation that I was a part of in Syria. This all changed after 2011, after we demanded our political freedom.

Q: Then they cracked down completely?

A: Any dictatorship would play this game with their people—they give them safety in lieu of freedom. “If you want your freedom, I’m taking away your safety, I’m sending the army into the streets, I’m opening 'Hell's Gates,' on you guys” — which is what happened.

Q: Were there some in the country who didn’t like the more progressive approach of the Syrian government before 2011, or was pretty much everyone on board with it?

A: Just to clarify one thing, Islamic State, ISIS, came to Syria in 2013. Because the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war, they crossed the borders to seize this opportunity to force their agendas on our people. Prior to the ISIS invasion, Assad was persecuting extremists, he arrested and detained them in his jails. But when Assad was facing a people’s uprising against his dictatorship, he let the extremists out of his prisons. Instead he began arresting the civil activists, the moderate powers, and started giving pardons to the Islamists, the extremists. He wanted the conflict to stop being a revolution against a dictatorship. He would rather have the whole world see him facing terror, facing extremism.

Q: He wanted ISIS to get stronger so the world could see him fighting terrorists instead of him fighting a liberal uprising in his country?

A: Yes, because he knows that if it were a conflict between him and his people, his people would win. It’s happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, all over the region. So he was smart enough to kind of be a step ahead of us, and to take the narrative where he wants. After two or three years, it stopped being just a people’s revolution against the dictatorship, there became a military component of it. ISIS saw this war and instability as a fertile environment for them, so they came to Syria. Initially, Assad and ISIS attacked the opposition—because they were weaker—with the intent to then attack each other once the moderates were finished.

Q: So, the picture that we have now of what’s going on in Syria is basically what Assad wanted us to see?

A: Exactly. His agenda, his plan…that he is conducting with the help of his allies — Iran and Russia.

Q: What is your ultimate hope for the region?

A: My hope is every Syrian’s hope: for this war to end. I watch the news, just like any other Syrian, feeling so bad, so down, so shocked by the scale of destruction and suffering. In Syria, before the war, we had 24 million people. Right now, less than half that number is still inside Syria. The others fled, were killed, internally displaced, and so on. Sadly, this is not coming to an end, this is just the beginning, and it's getting more complicated everyday. I hope for an end to the war, an end to the bloodshed. I hope for a tomorrow where we can wake up without hearing news about the death of any Syrian, regardless of their affiliation — with Assad, the opposition, even with ISIS. I’m not so optimistic to believe that the Syria I was born in will come back, because I don’t think it can. But, to have a realistic hope, I hope for my countrymen to stop dying.

Q: I know you’re not a political strategist, but how do you think that happens? How do you think the war does end?

A: Prince William asked me that too. I told him that I, on behalf of the Syrian people, want to let you know that I don’t think it’s in our hands anymore. It’s something that the international community has to stop. We need the whole world to come together, and specifically the US and Russia, to stop this madness. If they decide that this war has to end, they can, they have the means to stop military supplies to everybody, impose a no fly zone — it can be done. Until we see that, I don’t think anything will change. And, I am just wondering why the whole world is OK with this continuing.

Q: Apart from, perhaps, the US having a stronger [post-war] presence in Iraq, ensuring the government was in better shape, and including more Sunni in the military and government, what do you think could have prevented the creation of ISIS?

A: The whole concept of the American war in Afghanistan and Iraq are the reasons that we are dealing with this chaos. So, if there had been something that could’ve been done: it would've been not to go there in the first place. We had a stable pond, and the US threw a hundred rocks in and just ran away.

Q: Would it have made a difference if the early, more peaceful, protests against Assad had received international support?

A: At that time, early on? Absolutely. Also, the fact that the US made a deal with Assad and Russia to confiscate his chemical weapons meant that, in some ways, Assad had the “green light” for anything but chemical warfare.

Q: You had said you were in prison before ISIS had come because you were involved in the opposition against Assad. So, at that point, before the invasion of ISIS, were you already thinking that you wanted to leave Syria?

A: No, no, no. I’d been arrested a few times, first in April 2011, a month after the uprising started. I was taking videos of the demonstrations in the streets against Assad and uploading them on YouTube. A month later I was arrested during a demonstration for taking pictures. The soldiers arrested me and stole my camera, but I got lucky that time, because the soldiers greedily kept my camera for themselves, they didn’t give it to the other security officials. If they did, I would’ve been screwed. They kept me in the basement, tortured me for five days and let me out, that’s it.

Q: What was the breaking point? Was there a specific incident that made you flee?

A: Yes. After I was released, I kept on taking photos and video, trying not to get caught. But, they caught me again in November of 2011, and I spent about 20 days in jail. Again, I got lucky, they didn’t really have any evidence. I was just arrested for protesting, got tortured, and was let out. By that time, the protests against Assad started to shift to military actions and weapons, which is something I didn’t believe in, so I became less active. I kept taking videos during peaceful demonstrations, but that’s it. Then, in August 2013, they came after me again, for being critical of Assad’s regime on social media. The turning point was that this time they tortured me so badly I almost died. I was in a place where more than 10-15 people died a day, of torture, malnourishment, and disease. I witnessed the reality behind the photos leaked by the military police’s forensic photographer. Nobody knew what was happening before that. When I got out, nobody believed me. But after seeing that, after seeing death, I promised myself that if I ever saw the sunlight again…I’d go. I was released from jail the last time a few days before the end of 2013. I went to visit my family and say goodbye.

Q: How did you manage to get out of the country?

A: Luckily before being arrested the last time I applied for a passport and I got it.  I remember that I was shaking when the border guys were looking at my passport, going through their databases and stuff, but they stamped it and told me “OK go.” And we headed toward Lebanon, and the Lebanese authorities let me in.

Q: And from Lebanon you went to Turkey or you stayed in Lebanon?

A: No, no, I stayed in Lebanon. Right now if anybody in Syria wants to do the same thing, it’s impossible. The borders are now shut. I was lucky. One of the things about me, I’m always lucky.

Q: (Laughing) So, stick around you, ‘cause you’ve got good luck?

A: Absolutely. My story is full of lucky moments like this.

Q: You went to Lebanon, stayes in Lebanon, and applied for refugee status in Canada?

A: All I wanted to do was get out of Syria. I started trying to do something with my life in Lebanon, looking for a job…but it was very challenging, there are no jobs, there isn’t a welcoming attitude from Lebanese people—it’s a very small country and it has two million Syrian refugees, so it’s ok for them [the Lebanese] not to be welcoming. I came to realize that I couldn’t build a life in Lebanon. You can survive, but it isn’t a life. I started losing hope. In a hopeless attempt I approached the field offices for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). There are no travel applications, you just register with them as a refugee. So, just like all the other Syrian refugees, I registered and forgot about it. A month later, I received a call telling me I might be eligible for a resettlement opportunity in an unknown country. The next morning I was offered an interview, and that’s how it all started.

Q: Was this another instance where you got lucky? How many people got this opportunity?

A: In 2014, Canada welcomed 200 government-assisted refugees, 28 came to BC, I was one of them. I was among the 200 people who were helped by Canada, from the 5 million Syrian refugees. So, it was super lucky. It was like winning the lottery.

Q: Now you work at the ISS of BC. Tell me a little bit about working there. What are your responsibilities? What do refugees need most from you?

A: In the Welcome Centre we help thousands of immigrants and refugees every year. It is the first institution where refugees and immigrants can find all the services they need under one roof. There’s a section that works with refugees specifically, another section that works with any newcomer, we have a bank, a clinic, a food bank, and a daycare. We have everything. In my position I work very closely with refugees from day one of their arrival to their one-year anniversary of arrival. We help them apply for their SIN, for their health care card, open their first bank account, and find their first new home. I work with them on a follow-up basis to make sure the adults are going to English classes, the kids are going to school—my job is to make sure the basics are being met.

Q: As a person who was a refugee yourself, and went through all sorts of hell to get out, it seems like working at the Welcome Centre would be a very fulfilling job.

A: My dream was to treat cancer because I wanted to help other people, and to make this world a better place and I feel lucky that I am in a position to do something that is as rewarding as treating cancer, changing peoples’ lives, helping immigrants with their new future in Canada.

It’s really fulfilling to work with refugees, because the refugee population does not lack any motivation or ambition to succeed. They are so desperate for this opportunity. They have some barriers that they have to overcome, beginning with language, cultural shock, PTSD; it depends on everybody’s situation. But absolutely, the only thing that they need is time.

Q: What were your first impressions when you came to Canada? What did you think when you got off the plane?

A: Oh my god, my first day in Canada was a Tuesday. It was November 25th, 2014. I made it to Canada after a 20-hour flight. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, but I went through all the immigration procedures right there in the airport. I walked out of the plane as a refugee, but left the airport as a resident of Canada. I was sent by taxi to the ISS of BC’s welcome house, and I was greeted, given a bed, and told that I should rest…I was just thinking, “what did I do to myself?” I am all the way on the other side of the world, and I don’t even know the language a lot…these feelings of frustration changed the next morning when I had my first real conversation with a Canadian. I felt the warm reception; everybody was so welcoming and helpful.

Q: What were your first impressions of small things, stupid little things like your first meal, or seeing the city, what were some of the small experiences you had?

A: The first thing ever that I did in Canada was to get my coffee when I woke up in the morning.

Q: Did you go to Starbucks or did you go to Tim Horton’s?

A: I didn’t know about Starbucks, and I didn’t know about Tim Horton’s. Those are things I had to learn. That was the first time ever I went to Starbucks. One of the things about Starbucks is that Starbucks people assume that you know everything about Starbucks.

Q: That’s true; they assume everyone who walks in knows the whole menu.

A: (Laughing) I think that one of the things that newcomers have to go though is maybe a Starbucks orientation thing.

Q: Like what a Frappucuino is, what on earth a Caramel Macchiato is.

A: All of this variety…coffee is just coffee in Syria. 

Q: (Laughing) There’re no Pumpkin Spice Lattes?

A: No, no.

Q: So, getting back to Syria, what is happening right now? I know you distanced yourself from it once war fully broke out, but what's your perspective?

A: Well, I am sad to say that the dreams that we wanted to achieve and the goals that we had in 2011 and were hoping to achieve, are no longer there. I don’t think that any of the factional parties that exist on the ground right now represent the dreams of the Syrian people anymore.

Q: When we first started talking, you mentioned that it felt special growing up in Syria, in an extremely old and ancient place, where some of the buildings have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. I know that recently ISIS, and the wars in Syria have destroyed some of those buildings.

A: When they took control of Palmyra—that was just terrifying. Some people don’t really know this—but Assad gave them control of the city. Assad is smart; he knows how to play the game. He was controlling Palmyra. He retreated, and ISIS came. He knew that ISIS…

Q: …you think he gave them control because he knew they were going to destroy it?

A: …Assad knew that ISIS would destroy one of this most ancient of places. It’s a World Heritage site. Recognized by the UN. So, he knew to use this as a way for him to say, “I am representing civilization against ISIS.” After they devastated the area, he came back and took the city back. It was a political move by Assad.

Q: This is…and it’s a tough question for me to ask because I don’t know the implications of it, but, from what you’ve described, there’s obviously at least two evils…there’s Assad and ISIS. But, and this may be an impossible question for you to answer, but would you theoretically be OK with Assad staying in power if peace came again, and things went back to…

A: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think if I make the comparison between a single person’s death and the state of Assad I would rather see Assad stay rather than seeing that person dead. Even though it might be personal for me because the Assad regime almost killed me.

Q: That’s why I was afraid to ask that question.

A: …But no, the state of peace and the stop of bloodshed is more important to me, and if Assad was able to achieve it, absolutely, come on do it. But he can’t. He is the root, the source of the problem. If he wanted Syria not to go to war he could’ve done that. He took us that way. He played a big role in the establishment of ISIS, by releasing all the extremists, not fighting them when they were weak, allowing them to fight the opposition and fight the opposition side-by-side with ISIS. All of this has to be acknowledged. If we make just a very basic comparison between ISIS and Assad, of course Assad is better 100x more. But, if you take the context, I think what I’ve mentioned so far is enough reason to demonstrate that Assad is part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

Q: Returning to your life, you said that you’ve changed completely as a person.  Back then you were a young medical student, and I imagine through the things you’ve experienced you’ve learned a lot about yourself, your country, about people in general. What are the bigger things that you’ve maybe learned about yourself?

A: Well, I came to experience firsthand that the instinct of survival is the most powerful, on a personal level, and on a collective level. Five years of the worst crisis since WWII did not break us. We still love life, we work very hard to survive, and to overcome all of that. I see it firsthand with the people that I work with, and how even though they’ve seen the worst of the worst of the worst, they are still hopeful for the future. I think that I’ve come to know that nothing is impossible, and miracles can happen, and I found out that I’m the luckiest person alive.

Q: What are your personal hopes and goals for your personal future in Canada? What are your goals for 10 years from now? Would you want to be helping refugees still? Go back into medicine?

A: I hope to be in a position where I can help more people, not only refugees. I want to work more on being more active, more impacting to the community that is around me. I want to participate in so many other areas than refugees. I want to be able to have an impact in terms of making our environment cleaner and to be part of broader social changes for a better future. 

Q: Apart from PeaceGeeks, and the ISS of BC—I know you said you’re still in the process of moving your family here—but what does your personal community look like in Vancouver?

A: I feel lucky, again, that I was able to build a network of the most amazing Vancouverites ever. In my network I managed to meet a lot of wonderful people who are participating in a lot of advocacy, a lot of activism, a lot of social change work. I am personally focusing on the refugee advocacy awareness work and I do participate in trying to raise awareness about refugees. So, I’ve found my passion in activism, and refuge advocacy, representing the plight of Syrian refugees, which was the gateway to raise awareness about a lot of other related issues. Unfortunately our voice as a Syrian people was not heard from 2011, it was just heard now.

Q: To conclude, what would you tell people who are already Canadian citizens about what they can do to welcome the new Canadians from Syria and all over the world? What would you tell them is the most important thing to do?

A: To be informed, and to be aware of everything, to be considerate. I think Canadians are doing very well in terms of that. Canadians are very welcoming, very supportive.

I wasn’t welcomed as a refugee, I was welcomed as a new Canadian: and I acted like it. Here I am two years later, being a really active member of my new society, and it’s our responsibility as Canadians to make sure we give the same reception for the people to come.



Photograph: ISS of BC (Mohammed Alsaleh not pictured)

Dec 16, 2016
Category: Issue Briefs