Syrian civil war echoes in Halifax

Most of the local Syrian immigrant community appears to oppose president Bashar al-Assad, but one prominent business owner is a regime loyalist.

“Silence is what’s killing our people,” says Hadel Hafez, a member of Halifax’s Syrian community.

The 21-year-old Saint Mary’s University student shouted over the heavy wind on Sackville Street as she and many others rallied last month for a free Syria.

They met at Victoria Park to commemorate the second anniversary of the conflict, which has now claimed more than 70,000 lives. Together, the demonstrators walked around downtown Halifax as part of the Worldwide March for Syria.

Many of them voiced the same message, accusing the international community of standing by as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad slaughters the Syrian people.

“It’s a massacre,” says Hafez. “As we breathe, somebody’s being shot and kids [are] crying for their parents.”

Some of the protestors toted homemade posters that showed photos of maimed infants wrapped in bandages. Around the images read messages including “Lost Without A Home” and “RIP Freedom Birds.” One poster quoted Leonardo da Vinci: “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”

A local group, Justice and Freedom for Syria, organized the city’s walk. Mohamed Masalmeh, the group’s co-founder, says the walk’s objectives were to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict and to speak for those who can’t – the Syrian people.

Masalmeh says there are 200-300 Syrians in Halifax, and about three-quarters of them oppose the incumbent’s regime.

Roy Khoury, the owner of the city’s two Mary’s Place Cafés, says the local Syrian population is roughly twice that size. He says he’s among 500 Syrians in Halifax who support Syrian President Assad.

Khoury says there are only a handful of Syrians in the city who support the opposition.

“Two or three people, that’s it.”

Masalmeh led an upwards of 30 Syrians and their supporters around downtown Halifax during the Worldwide March for Syria. He repeatedly cried out against president Bashar al-Assad, alternating between “Free, free Syria” and “Down, down Bashar.”

The protestors trailing behind him echoed Mohamed’s anti-regime slogans. They waved six opposition flags as they marched. Two Canadian flags were visible, fluttering between them. One man carried a Kurdish flag.

Farset Mohammed, a SMU business student, walked in front of the man. Pointing at the Kurdish flag, Mohammed, 23, explained he is from the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. He gestured towards his Syrian family members and friends walking further ahead: “This is my community.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re Syrian or you’re Canadian.”

Sharon Murphy agrees.

“We all need to speak up against oppression and injustice,” she says. “I’m here as a Canadian.”

During the walk Murphy appeared frail. She explained she had fallen and sustained a concussion. But the injury wasn’t enough to crush her spirits; Murphy kept up with the crowd.

She hefted a sign that was almost as wide as she is tall. Its message was grim: “The World Stays Silent While the Children of Syria are massacred [sic].”

Hadi Salah, the principle of the Maritime Muslim Academy, is a third non-Syrian that walked in the event. Salah is from southern Libya.

He says local Libyans used to rally alongside “our Syrian brothers” every Sunday at Victoria Park. The Libyans would call for the overthrow of Gaddafi, and the Syrians, for Assad.

The Libyans haven’t been to the park in about a year and a half.

The Syrians still congregate on the corner of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street Sunday afternoons to pass out pamphlets to passersby.

Salah says he took to the streets to call on the international community to intervene in Syria.

“They [the Syrian people] deserve to be helped.”

Salah questions the international community’s lack of involvement and blames its inactivity in part on the United Nations and its Security Council.

Omar al-Isso, a Kurdish man from the Al-Hasakah province in northeastern Syria, carried the Kurdish flag during the walk. He says the UN must take action in Syria, despite the allegiance to Assad’s regime of two Security Council member states with veto power---Russia and China.

Al-Isso says the international community needs to send a clear message to Assad: “If you don’t change, we’re coming.”

Al-Isso says this ultimatum should include a threat to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. The government, says al-Isso, is using jets to drop bombs on the Syrian people.

“The international community is still watching.”

Al-Isso says the Libyan revolution amounted to one percent of the conflict that is eroding his homeland. “But they (the West) intervened in Libya like this,” he says, snapping his fingers. “Because of oil.”

Mohamed Masalmeh, who co-founded JFS with al-Isso, says Syria lacks the abundance of petroleum that drew western governments to the revolting African country. He says that’s why they’ve kept quiet. “Money speaks.”

Masalmeh says he thinks it’s too late for the international community to end the war, but it *can* still scare the regime. He, too, thinks the west should threaten Assad. “If you use your ballistic missiles, then missiles will hit your own palace.”

Instead, says Masalmeh, the international community has offered only its sympathy. “The US and other countries are saying, ‘Please don’t hurt your own people.’” In Masalmeh’s eyes, that approach is shameful.

He says Assad’s regime has killed 120 of his family members. The youngest of them was 10-months-old.

“The regime is taking revenge on citizens and that’s what we want the international community to help with.”

Roy Khoury, who supports Assad, says that’s not the problem. “Why are you asking the government to stop killing? That’s his job. The president, that’s his job: to protect his country.”

Khoury has a photo hung of Assad at his restaurant’s second location on Spring Garden Road ---a decision Khoury says has over the last year cost him many of his Syrian customers. He says the picture’s presence has also caused many non-Syrian Arabs to boycott his business.

Khoury says the photo has been on display since before the war, and insists all are still welcome.

He says people are wrongfully accusing Assad of killing Syrians. “That’s [a] game or a scenario from [the] CIA, from America, from all the west.”

Instead, he argues Syria is free, though not to western standards. As for the ongoing conflict in Syria, Khoury says protests should be peaceful.

“[By] fighting, no one’s going to win---not the government, not the opposition.”

In his opinion, Syria needs peace, but, “we need to have the right peace for our country.” By that he means the west shouldn’t plan or control Syria’s future.

Khoury says his country also needs to make amends with Israel---a relationship he says can improve if Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syria. (Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since the Six-Day War in 1967, when it seized the territory from Syria.)

Otherwise, Khoury says he respects the opposition.

“But I don’t respect when you ask the Americans to come attack my country.”

Khoury did not walk in the Worldwide March for Syria.

“I have a business, and I don’t want to make enemies with anybody.”

Support The Coast

At a time when the city needs local coverage more than ever, we’re asking for your help to support independent journalism. We are committed as always to providing free access to readers, particularly as we confront the impact of COVID-19 in Halifax and beyond.

Read more about the work we do here, or consider making a donation. Thank you for your support!

Comments (2)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Get more Halifax

The Coast Daily email newsletter is your extra dose of the city Monday through Friday. Sign up and go deep on Halifax.

Recent Comments