It was 2011, and images of protests and demonstrations in Syria were beginning to appear across social media platforms.
At the time, people were unsure how to react. Some figured the protests would diminish as suddenly as they rose, and things would more or less go back to normal, the way they did in Saudi Arabia that same year.
Others expressed concern by posting YouTube videos showing the atrocities that were gradually engulfing the country. As time passed, these images started to become more graphic, depicting sieges, tanks, and blood-stained civilians running for their lives.
Syria plunged into civil war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, with the death toll is still rising.
The conflict in Syria is a geopolitically intense issue involving Russia, the US, and the Gulf States. The conflict is also the most disastrous humanitarian crisis since World War II; individuals and families have been uprooted by the ubiquitous violence, and refugee numbers have reached record highs. Aleppo, the former commercial centre of Syria, is war-torn, and many families have fled their homes in search of safety.
Among the affected families is that of Nazar Poladian, an Armenian Syrian who began attending the UTM in September 2016. His family fled from Aleppo in 2012, while he was in his third year of a marketing program at the University of Kalamoon. After spending three years in Lebanon, his family arrived in Canada and settled in Scarborough.
Poladian is currently studying Digital Enterprise Management while working full-time to support his family. He has been actively promoting awareness of the Syrian crisis, having delivered a TEDx Talk earlier this year. He has also created his own YouTube channel where he posts videos related to Syria and shares his personal journey.
In his words, “Being a refugee means losing your home; being a refugee means leaving your friends, your family, your university, your education, and most importantly, your sense of belonging.”
Poladian talked about some of the struggles facing the Syrian refugee community, as well as what his goals were in Canada.
“I miss everything about my city Aleppo,” he began, when asked about his home in Syria. “Its songs, its food, its culture. It is in our heart, our mind, and our soul. However, I am loyal to the local community and working on adapting. It is easier for the younger generation, such as myself, because we are more flexible.”
Poladian explained that his father, on the other hand, has found it more difficult to adjust. His mother is currently working on continuing her education, and the community has been supportive.
Despite the support, there have been challenges for the family.
Communication, in particular, is one of the primary challenges for new refugees arriving in Canada, as many of them have little to no time to learn the language prior to their arrival. To address this problem, a program in Quebec is granting money to students who dedicate time to learn English.
However, as Poladian stated, it is still difficult for refugees to work and learn a new language at the same time. He said, “Language is perhaps one of the most important assets needed in a country as diverse as Canada, and without it, one cannot fully enjoy the Canadian experience. Language assists with the professional life, the social life, and so on.”
Another challenge for new arrivals is the employment barrier. Finding a job in Canada is difficult for newcomers because labour is highly specialized, while in Syria, it was more general and simplified. Nevertheless, many programs exist to help Syrians learn the skills necessary to thrive.
The Canadian government has welcomed refugees to Canada, and the University of Toronto has done a lot to help them integrate into the community, including helping students like Poladian continue their education and receive financial aid.
However, some abhor this welcoming strategy.
Donald Trump, for example, repeatedly stated during his presidential campaign that he would not allow Syrian refugees, or even Muslims in general, to enter America. He states in his book How to Make America Great Again that “allowing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees will certainly bring a lot of problems.”
On other occasions, Trump has stated that letting in refugees is akin to “letting in ISIS,” a statement to which Poladian replied, “His statement is stupid and also quite illogical. It is erroneous to equate terrorism to refugees or even to Muslims in general.” He pointed out that most of the terrorist attacks that occur, such as the Boston bombings or the Paris attacks, are not in fact carried out by refugees. Also, the screening process, which in Nazar’s family’s case took nine months, is effective in deterring migrants who may pose potential threats; the background checks are extensive.
When asked about how nations should respond to the refugee crisis of Syrians, Poladian said that nations with the capacity and resources to help new immigrants integrate into their society should prioritize helping them enter the country. He explained that a problem occurs when new refugees arrive and have difficulty adjusting, which is why the country receiving the refugees has a responsibility to help new arrivals adapt. He thinks that countries like the US, which have admitted a limited number of refugees, should increase their numbers.
“Allowing refugees to enter is not a choice, but rather, a matter of doing the right thing,” Poladian said. “We have to help newcomers, and we cannot underestimate this problem.”
Poladian’s goal is to be a productive citizen in Canada and to give back to society.
“Even when I was in Lebanon, I felt this responsibility,” he said. “Our message should be that be that we are not here merely to survive but rather to be collaborate, compete, and create. We have a fruitful culture and history and need to be part of the producing team.”
He hopes to give back to society through his work in digital marketing, entrepreneurial projects, and any other way possible.
Local members of the U of T community shared why they thought reporting on Syria was still important.
Among them, Zahra Shaikh, a Computer Science student in her fourth year, said, “A lot of the times, people think that [Syrians] are arriving and that’s it, they’re just settled. But it’s actually much more than that. You need to help them emotionally and psychologically.”
Shaikh has personally spoken to affected members: “the biggest issue for them is that they are depressed because of the change in culture, environment, etc… and a lot of people feel isolated from the Muslim community or from any other community, just because of language barriers. The main thing we can do is help them connect with people who can speak Arabic and for us to be a part of their transition.”
Mary Abdul-Karim, a first-year student in medical sciences, recounted how last summer, her local mosque connected with Syrian families and donated what they could.
“We gave them gifts and had a chance to talk to them,” she said. “They felt like everyone was kind, but they missed their families a lot. Some of them had to leave behind their families and felt depressed and sad for the loss.”
In the second presidential debate for the current US election, a woman from Pennsylvania named Diane asked what the future president would do about the situation in Syria.
“Isn’t it a lot like the Holocaust,” read her question, “where the US waited too long before taking action?” Syrians, and all refugees, need help now.
The issue is, and will continue to be, relevant as long as the conflict continues. The University of Toronto has a unique role in addressing the situation by helping Syrians integrate into its academic community. Educating the public will be an important tool for rebuilding a future Syria.