A young Iranian helps Syrian refugees adjust to Canada

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“The West hates the Assad government,” Attar explained, “but before the war, their government wasn’t that bad, some people said to me. Assad brought peace for his country for a long time. There was public health care and education, although that didn’t really help people much in the rural areas. Westerners could visit the country normally. And yet now they’ve blown up the houses of their own citizens.”

The challenges of being an Iranian in Canada helping Syrian refugees

I met with Attar later in the summer and asked him to tell me more about his impressions of the Syrian refugees. He told me he was uncomfortable around the adults. He said that many times, when it would come up in conversation that he was from Iran, they would immediately turn away from him and begin speaking rapidly to each other in Arabic. He picked up enough of the words to know they were talking about the war at home in Syria and Iran’s role in it.

“The adults talk to me, but I feel it in the air. They know I’m Iranian. ‘Why has my country done these things?,’ I ask myself. I hate to be embarrassed to say I’m Iranian.”

Attar used to openly disagree with his father about the Shah, who governed Iran before he was born and before the current Iranian military government took over. His dad had tried to get Attar to see how much better things were under the Shah. But at school, Attar was taught about the many repressive acts by the Shah, and he was too young to fathom the possibility that in some ways the current government in Iran is even more dangerous.

To further illustrate how hard it is to come to terms with the situation in Syria, he told me of an Arabic-language video he saw on Facebook of Syrian moderates, supported by the US, to help topple the Assad regime. They were chanting all kinds of hateful slogans against foreigners and against the religious branch of the current government (a minority in Syria).

The point of Attar’s story was that when he talked about the video with three of the Syrian refugees here, they agreed with the sentiment that Syria should be allowed to be a pure Sunni (majority branch of Muslim in Syria) state. Attar found it paradoxical that those same few people who seemed to agree with the video, at least in part, didn’t express animosity toward him particularly, although he is not Sunni.

Out of concern that his presence might be upsetting to the adults and his own admitted discomfort, Attar worked primarily with Syrian youth over the summer.

Originally stretching over a kilometer, the Great Colonnade or Tetrapylon was built 2,000 years ago in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: © Shane Davis

Attar has maintained an open mind and continued to find ways to empathize with the extreme suffering of the refugees he’s met through volunteering. He told me that now he even agrees with his father on some issues concerning Iran and that he has learned to question and look beyond the obvious.

I asked Attar to summarize the Syrian conflict and he turned it back on me, so I offered: “the Syrian conflict is so complicated because it involves warring factions, tribes, local powers and super powers. There are so many inter-relationships that don’t always make sense. Enemies become allies and allies become enemies.”

“Every day,” added Attar. He exclaimed, “Do you know how many issues there are? Historical, political, religious, sectarian, humanitarian! They are all mixed up together. I’ve felt I have to keep them all in my mind and to keep thinking about them.”

Attar confessed he didn’t volunteer only to help refugees: “I did it to learn more about the conflicts in the Middle East.” Then he paused and said, “It gives me troubled sleep, that’s the only problem with that.” He likened the way Syrians might mistrust Iranians to the way Iranians felt about Iraqis when the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein attacked his country.

“It’s sadly natural,” he said.

In our conversations, I was moved by the depth of Attar’s caring nature toward the refugees’ suffering. “Last summer [while I was volunteering so much] I couldn’t focus on my classes the way I usually do," he said. "But one good thing is I’ve learned more about how we came to live in such misery in the region, in the Middle East.”

Building bridges with Syrian refugee youth

One time, Attar was in charge of an outdoor event for 4, 5 and 6-year olds. With little supervision, Attar was worried the kids would run off and so he suggested they have the children line up for face painting. The kids loved it and the lining up gave he and his fellow youth volunteers a way to keep the children safe.

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