SuraiTea’s Kamel Al Harere had to say goodbye to the world he grew up in and most of the people he loved. Today, he’s building a new life in Canada. Here is his story.
By: Jacob Harris, Journalism Student, Carleton University
Just outside the ancient city of Daraa, a major hub between Baghdad and Damascus, is a small olive farm where Kamel Al Harere spent some of his happiest moments growing up.
“We are farmers originally so we spent a lot of time harvesting and squeezing the olives to get olive oil from them,” Al Harere said through an interpreter. “It was my favourite childhood memory.”
Kamel loved working on the farm, where 100 emerald olive trees filled the property. The farm was a source of pride for Kamel’s family, a place where they planted their roots and secured their future.
Between the olive farm and the family-owned construction store, the Al Hareres had something special to pass on to their children.
Daraa is a fairly wealthy city with close connections to the Assad regime, making it seem like an ideal place to get an education and begin life as an adult. Kamel says he loved going to school everyday and cherished the time he spent with his classmates.
Like many teenagers, Kamel went to school each day looking forward to seeing his friends, including his best friend, Mahmoud. Across Daraa, young men the same age as Kamel used their time with friends at school to talk about their displeasure with the Assad regime. In 2011, some of these conversations focused on the rebellions in Libya and Egypt, conversations that would eventually spark small acts of protest, like writing anti-Assad graffiti on the walls in central Daraa.
Once the Syrian government began capturing and torturing the students responsible for the graffiti, protests erupted in the streets of Daraa. The city became a focal point of the growing conflict, and the seeds of revolution grew into five years of bloodshed.
The violence spread across southwestern Syria, and continued around the country. In early 2013, this violence arrived in the Al Harere family’s backyard.
“We lost everything,” Kamel said.
The olive farm and construction store were destroyed during a battle between Syrian Armed Forces and the rebels. In an instant, Kamel’s family lost their business and their home.
Kamel said that everything around them was destroyed, leaving his family with no option other than to try to escape the country on foot.
The Al Hareres fled to Syria’s southern border, and tried to build a new life in neighboring Jordan, but Kamel said that Jordan’s laws made this very difficult.
“My uncle was helping us pay the rent, because in Jordan we are forbidden from working officially,” Kamel said.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that the inability to work has a detrimental effect on both financial stability and psychological well-being, and much of Jordan’s large refugee population was reduced to waiting in refugee camps, aching for the opportunity to rebuild their lives.
Since refugees cannot legally be employed in Jordan, Kamel was forced to do informal painting and tiling work. The money was inconsistent, and it was clear to the Al Hareres that they would eventually need to find a new home.
The limbo that the Al Hareres found themselves in is similar to what over 3 million Syrian refugees have experienced during the last five years of the crisis. Living in this state of transition has not only limited their opportunity for employment, but has put the education of many children on hold. This has lead to people labelling this group of young Syrians as a lost generation.
For Kamel, finding his way included registering as a refugee with the United Nations, and after three years of waiting for a phone call, finally moving to Ottawa. After living in Canada for five months, Kamel says that he is starting to get used to things.
“I’m getting used to (the colder weather) because all the buildings are heated, so I don’t notice the cold except when I’m outside.”
While the Al Harere family, and the other 27,000 Syrian Canadian refugees, are building a new life in Canada, Kamel says their home country will always be in their hearts.
“I enjoyed each moment of my life in Syria,” said Kamel. “It was our home.”
While the family is grateful for the opportunity to live in Canada, the tragic circumstances that forced their departure are not lost on them. Their olive farm was once a connection to their homeland, but is now something that cannot be retrieved.
Kamel works hard to keep his connection with his boyhood friend Mahmoud, who still lives in Syria. Kamel says they still message each other online, but it is not the same as sharing a cup of tea as they used to.
Despite what his family has gone through, Kamel is less concerned about discussing the things that he and his country have lost than he is about the new opportunities his family has been presented with.
“I want to get a good job here, then start my own life. Get married, have children, settle down here,” Kamel says with a smile on his face.