Syrians in Canada, fearing the worst, say goodbye to their loved ones in Aleppo
Every time Maysa Omnidal talks to friends and family who remain in wartorn Aleppo, they say their goodbyes, just in case.
“They tell us that it’s the last time,” Omnidal, an Aleppo native who arrived in Canada just three months ago as part of the Syrian refugee resettlement program, told VICE News, fighting back tears. “I don’t ever know if we can talk another time.”
Since she’s been here, Omnidal has been watching, in horror, as her city is ravaged.
On Thursday morning, the evacuation of civilians and opposition fighters from the last rebel-held districts in Aleppo was finally underway, a day after another ceasefire deal collapsed and shelling by pro-government forces on rebel-held territory resumed. Syria’s onslaught has been made possible by Russian support.
BBC reported Thursday that roughly 1,000 Syrians were being allowed to evacuate the city, while as many as 50,000 remain — thousands of whom are anti-Assad fighters, or their families. The fate of those who remain is uncertain, but reports have trickled out of mass executions in districts captured by Assad forces.
Omnidal spent a frigid Wednesday evening at a busy downtown intersection in Toronto, outside the Russian consulate, with a crowd of protesters, shaming foreign governments for their inaction.
“They are not killing specific people. They are killing everyone.”
The crowd of about 30, made up mostly of Syrian-Canadians and recently arrived refugees, called on the Canadian government to pressure Russia to end its support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. “Save Aleppo,” they chanted. “Putin is a criminal.”
But despite Canada’s support for the responsibility to protect doctrine — the belief that Western nations need to intervene to prevent genocide or war crimes — Ottawa’s involvement in Syria has been largely limited to breathless condemnation and diplomatic efforts within the confines of the United Nations that have proved largely fruitless.
Speaking to reporters in London, Canada’s defense minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, laid the blame on the Assad regime and its Russian backers.
“These atrocities need to stop,” he said. “We need to come up with a political settlement that’s in the best interest of the people in Syria, first of all, and then help to bring stability into the area.”
At the rally, Omnidal says friends and family told her they didn’t trust the ceasefires to hold and that they were terrified of trying to leave.
“They are innocent people. Their only crime is asking for freedom,” she says. “Politics is another world, but I think politics should not be separate from people’s lives.”
Bayan Khatib, a Syrian-Canadian activist who has been working closely with newcomers since an influx of refugees arrived at the end of last year, has relatives in Aleppo and friends in the besieged area. One of Khatib’s friends is a doctor, one of the most dangerous jobs to hold in Aleppo.
According to Physicians for Human Rights, nearly 738 doctors, nurses, and medical aides have been killed since 2011, and the Syrian government has been largely responsible.
“It’s terrifying because the Syrian government lies all the time,” Khatib says. “They offered safe passage to other neighbourhoods and literally shot civilians as they were leaving… There’s no hope unless there’s outside intervention.”
The newcomers she works with feel “exactly as I feel,” she says. “All of them have lost their homes and fled and ended up in camps … Many have lost relatives, many have been themselves been traumatized in jail, kidnapped, every story you can imagine. They’ve felt the evil of the regime firsthand.”
Karam Jamalo, a government-sponsored refugee who’s now been in Canada for seven months, says the horror didn’t end after he left Syria for Lebanon in 2011. While there, he survived four kidnapping attempts times by Hezbollah soldiers attempting to bring him back to Syria, to force him to serve in the Syrian army.
Jamalo’s parents are in rebel-held territory in Aleppo, and they’ve refused to leave, he says.
“They won’t leave. It’s hard to leave. There are gangs everywhere, the Syrian army everywhere,” he says. “They are not killing specific people. They are killing everyone. You can’t imagine.”
“This could lift their spirits for a bit, but it’s not enough.”
Aorwa Katiabi, who is from Selamiyah, a small town northeast of Homs, arrived in Toronto about six months ago. He says all the newcomers he protested alongside the day prior were “against the regime, supporting the revolution, participated in the revolution when they were in Syria, and tried to help Syrians when they got out.”
Katiabi is frustrated with what he says is a “media campaign led by the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian regimes to propagate lies to people that they are actually saving civilians, when we saw so many photos from people broadcasting live from inside eastern Aleppo about what’s actually happening.”
At an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday, Bashar al-Jaafari, Syrian ambassador to the UN, held up a photo claiming it was of a Syrian soldier helping a Syrian woman.
“This is what the Syrian army is doing in Aleppo,” he told the Security Council about the photo. “Here you see a picture of a Syrian soldier providing help and succour to a woman, helping her get out of a car.”
That photo, however, was actually taken in Iraq and appeared online in June, according to reports from journalists and activists in the region.
Katiabi, like Omnidal and Jamalo, is relying on information coming directly from the area. He’s been watching social media posts from activists on the ground, while Omnidal only trusts her mother, sister, and friends.
“I know what we did yesterday by protesting in front of the Russian consulate, it doesn’t mean anything here, but it means a lot to the people inside because people are watching what’s happening,” he says. “This could lift their spirits for a bit, but it’s not enough.”
Cover: Photo by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters