Photo by Imad Jazmati.
Days before his brother Omar was set to be married, Ahmad Smoudi got a phone call from his mother.
Omar, 38, who lived in Berlin, had returned to his native Syria to marry his fiancée, Menna and bring her back to Germany with him. But shortly after the family attended mosque in Latakia (Syria’s main port city) on April 15, Smoudi said, Syrian security forces shot a small girl at a street corner. When Omar rushed to help her, they shot him, too.
“My mother called me, crying,” Smoudi said.
Family members rushed him to Latakia’s National Hospital, Smoudi said, but the staff there refused to treat him because he’d been shot by security forces. Though Omar was admitted to another hospital, he died a few hours later.
Smoudi, 48, who lives in Mississauga, was one of many Syrian-Canadians in the Toronto area who gathered at Yonge-Dundas Square on Saturday to protest the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Compared to the massive protests in the streets of many Syrian cities over the past three months, the Toronto march was relatively small—but the men and women who went seemed to relish that they had the freedom to hold it. “Police exist to serve us, not to kill us,” one protester shouted exuberantly at a bicycle-mounted officer directing the march on Dundas Street.
Most of the protesters seemed to have at least one relative or friend caught up in the revolution in one way or another.
Abdalkader Alshoghri, an unemployed civil engineer who lives in Mississauga, said his brother Anas, 23, had been “the first voice to call out for freedom” in Banias, a city on the Syrian coast, when protests began in March. An economics student at a local university, Anas led many of the protests in Banias, Alshoghri said. With international media banned from the country, he also served as a key source for several news outlets, including Al Jazeera, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse.
But when Syrian security forces took control of Banias last month, Alshoghri said, they hunted Anas down and captured him. For a time, Alshoghri was unsure if his brother was alive or dead. Eventually, however, Alshoghri said he’d received word from another captive who had been released that Anas was alive, though Syrian forces continued to brutally torture him.
Other protesters related tales of tortured relatives as well.
One man, who requested anonymity to protect his family, said two family members had been held and tortured in Latakia, one for two days and another for three weeks. The first relative, he said, was beaten with electrical cables while he was made to crouch inside a tire in the fetal position. The second was arrested after authorities caught him using a satellite phone, the man told us, which cannot be monitored easily by the government. Fearing he was a spy, his captors tortured him by pulling off one of his fingernails.
Because the Syrian government monitors much communication, simply keeping in touch with relatives in Syria can be something of an ordeal. Many Syrian-Canadians use Skype. And Syrians who live in border areas, Smoudi explained, sometimes use cell phones with carriers based in a neighbouring country, like Turkey or Lebanon.
As the protests in Syria near the beginning of their fourth month, many Syrians in Toronto are becoming veteran protesters themselves. Ali Kasir, 43, a Mississauga physiotherapist who has helped to organize many rallies, has marched in seven or eight of them, in Windsor, London, and Ottawa, as well as Toronto. Noura Sheikh Alzoor, a 23-year-old Ryerson dietetics student, said she has been to four, and that her brother Fayez has been to twice that. The constant stream of YouTube videos showing Syrian protests and news reports of torture make it hard to stop showing up, Kasir said: “Every day when I see the news, the torture, I want to be more involved.”