Seeing Ukrainians’ experience of war brings back my own memories of fleeing Syria

Ali Kharsa says seeing the war in Ukraine has brought his memories of fleeing Syria back to the forefront.

Saskatoon feels like home now but it took time to get there

This First Person piece is by Ali Kharsa, an international relations student at Vanier College in Montreal. His family fled war in Syria and he is now a Canadian citizen. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I remember the day the innocence of my childhood ended.

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

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

A lot of kids and teachers died that day back in 2010. Maybe it would have been me if I was at school.

That was when my family and I began to smell war. I came home to find my mother crying and my father worrying.

"We have to leave. The threat came near my kids," my father said.

Robbery and kidnapping soon became realities of life.

When I watch the news and see the horrible situation in Ukraine, I am reminded of the suffering of many Syrians.

My parents never wanted to show us their real feelings. They wanted us to feel secure. Just as some Ukrainian parents are probably doing for their children right now, they told us, "We're moving to another country. We're going to start a new life. You guys are going to be happy."

As a young boy, I wasn't one to cry. But when we left, I cried as I said goodbye to family, my uncles and my grandparents. My grandmother is so sweet, and saying goodbye to her made me feel like I had nothing more 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 leave to Australia by paying smugglers to help us cross the border to Indonesia.

This wasn't just like crossing a street. We had to walk through forests and bushes, following these strangers, who carried guns and weapons and knew that we didn't have any power or documents. I knew that any moment, if they didn't like what I said or did, they could easily turn around and shoot me.

I always had a plan and a plan B in my head — that I might make it or I might not, that I might die or end up in prison.

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

When we reached Australia, we were put in a detention centre in dusty Nauru Island. We were kept in a hot tent with little water.

There, I really broke down. I wondered, "Is my future gone? Is this where it ends with me here? Now, here we are in an island in the middle of the ocean where no one even knows us."

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

She chose Canada as her destination based 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 Canada would resettle that year. Beyond the shock of the cold, I was exhausted by 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 be in a safer environment but the reality is more complicated than that. You may see pictures of refugees being welcomed at the airport or the border and everyone looks joyful. But these photos would not tell you how these people really feel having to adjust to a new lifestyle, 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 scared to go out and meet people, but my mother encouraged me to go to school and meet other students and put that tough life behind me. It took time, but I overcame my fears and anxiety.

When my extended family was able to join us in Canada, it was beautiful. My grandma calls me "my dear" and "my love" and treats me like I'm five years old. I love it.

Any person that goes through a lot 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 feels like Syria to me now. We play Syrian music, we eat Syrian food, we speak the language with one another, even while we meet people of other ethnicities and embrace them.

My family talks about opening a small restaurant. I'm now a Canadian citizen and a university student with a job and a future.

I know adjusting won't be easy for the Ukrainian people that may come to this country even though they will be in a safer environment. These people have lost their homes, the things they once owned and, most of all, their families and friends. Those are things that can't be replaced.

But it's possible to start a new life and have hope once again. I know, because I'm living proof.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for Opinion and First Person pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

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Ali Kharsa is an international relations student at Vanier College. His family fled Syria during the war. After coming to Canada as a refugee, he has become a Canadian citizen. He is also a rapper under the name MC AK.

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