Seeing the Ukrainian war experience brings back my own memories of fleeing Syria

This first-person piece is by Ali Kharsa, an international relations student at Vanier College in Montreal. His family fled the war in Syria and he is now a Canadian citizen. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

I remember the day my childhood innocence ended.

My friends and I had decided that day to skip school in my hometown of Aleppo in Syria. We were young, only 13, and sometimes we would go to lunch and come back. We had only been away for about an hour when we heard the explosion and saw smoke billowing from our school.

We ran to see the whole town locked down with army and police officers swarming everywhere.

Many children and teachers died on this day in 2010. Maybe it would have been me if I had been in school.

It was then that my family and I began to feel the war. I came home to find my mother crying and my father worried.

“We have to leave. The threat has approached my children,” my father said.

Kharsa with his father and sister in Syria as children. He says they had a normal, quiet life until the civil war. (Submitted by Ali Kharsa)

Thefts and kidnappings quickly became facts of life.

When I watch the news and see the horrible situation in Ukraine, it reminds me of the suffering of many Syrians.

My parents never wanted to show us their true feelings. They wanted us to feel safe. Just like some Ukrainian parents are probably doing for their children right now, they told us, “We are moving to another country. We are going to start a new life. You are going to be happy.

As a young boy, I wasn’t one to cry. But when we left, I cried saying goodbye to my family, my uncles and my grandparents. My grandmother is so sweet and saying goodbye to her made me feel like I had nothing left to lose, because I had already lost everything.

Over the next two years, we learned what it meant to be refugees.

We landed in Malaysia with no rights and little money to support a family of six. Seeing no future for ourselves or my younger siblings, my father and I decided to move to Australia, paying smugglers to help us cross the border into Indonesia.

It wasn’t like crossing a street. We had to walk through forests and bushes, following these foreigners, who carried guns and weapons and knew that we had no power or papers. I knew that at any time, if they didn’t like what I was saying or doing, they could easily turn around and shoot me.

I always had a plan and a plan B in my head – whether I could succeed or not, whether I could die or end up in prison.

But I knew I had no other place to go and no choice but to continue.

Kharsa, left, sits with his brothers Abdulrahman and Mohammad. (Submitted by Ali Kharsa)

When we arrived in Australia, we were placed in a detention center on the dusty island of Nauru. We were kept in a hot tent with little water.

There, I really broke down. I asked myself, “Is my future gone?

I would end up staying there for a year. Fortunately for my family, my mother was able to apply for asylum and be accepted by the United Nations.

She chose Canada as her destination on the advice of people who told her it would be a safe place for our family.

We arrived in this country in the winter of 2015 among a wave of Syrian refugees that Canada would resettle that year. Beyond the shock of the cold, I was exhausted at the idea of ​​having to start my life over again in a new country.

When refugees arrive in Canada or any other Western country, they may find themselves in a safer environment, but the reality is more complicated than that. You can see pictures of refugees being welcomed at the airport or at the border and everyone looks happy. But these photos wouldn’t tell you how these people really feel compelled to adapt to a new lifestyle, a new culture, and maybe even learn a new language. It’s like starting from scratch as a newborn.

After living in a detention camp for a year, I was afraid to go out and meet people, but my mother encouraged me to go to school and meet other students and put this difficult life behind me. It took time, but I overcame my fears and anxiety.

Ali Kharsa, right, is seen here with his mother and grandmother. They all live in Canada now. (Submitted by Ali Kharsa)

When my extended family was able to join us in Canada, it was wonderful. My grandmother calls me “sweetie” and “my love” and treats me like I’m five years old. I love it.

Anyone going through a difficult time in their life needs a lot of love and support, especially from family members and friends. They give me a lot of strength, a lot of power.

Saskatoon now looks like Syria to me. We play Syrian music, we eat Syrian food, we speak the language with each other, even though we meet people of other ethnicities and hug them.

My family is talking about opening a small restaurant. I am now a Canadian citizen and a university student with a job and a future.

I know that the adaptation will not be easy for Ukrainians who may come to this country, even if they will find themselves in a safer environment. These people have lost their homes, the possessions they once owned and, above all, their family and friends. These are things that cannot be replaced.

But it is possible to start a new life and find hope. I know, because I am living proof of it.

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