For Mohamad Mamoun Alhomsi and his two sons, Canada has meant freedom on many levels.
It has meant the freedom to exist together as a family and freedom from being constantly hunted down by their own government.
Alhomsi and his sons Yasin, 25 and Majd, 22, spent the final weeks of 2015 getting to know each other after a 15-year separation.
Their ordeal started in 2000, when Mohamad, an independent member of the Syrian parliament, went on a hunger strike to protest the human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime of president Bashar Assad.
“In Damascus, people loved him so much. Too many people,” Majd says, explaining that his father’s popularity was threatening to the government.
Alhomsi was arrested on charges that included “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means,” according to Human Rights Watch, and sentenced to five years in prison. His arrest and sentence attracted international condemnation, including from the governments of Canada, France and the United States.
Alhomsi believes his jail sentence was intended to punish the whole family. Yasin, who was 10 at the time, says their father was a hero to them and it caused them pain to imagine what was happening to him in prison. He and Majd, then 7, were supported by the extended family.
In 2006, Alhomsi was released from prison and fled to Lebanon with his wife. The government would not let him have contact with Yasin or Majd. Shortly after Alhomsi was released from jail, state security forces came to the family home looking for him. They kidnapped Yasin, then 16, and held him overnight, hoping to lure his father back.
From Lebanon, Alhomsi lobbied foreign governments to support democracy and human rights for the Syrian people. He still keeps a folder with a signed photograph of himself with former U.S. president George W. Bush, who subsequently invited him to a meeting at the Oval Office.
This angered the Assad regime in Syria, which pressured the Lebanese government to expel Alhomsi from the country and in 2010, they moved to deport him. He was registered with the United Nations as a refugee and was offered asylum by seven countries when he became unwelcome in Lebanon, including the U.S. and Canada. He had no interest in going to any country other than Canada, he says through Yasin, because of its reputation for upholding human rights. He was assured by Canadian embassy officials in Beirut that he’d be able to sponsor his two older sons within six months.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, life was not easy for Yasin and Majd. As the Syrian revolution unfolded in 2011, Yasin was in his second year of university and already on the radar of authorities because of who his father was. One day, state security forces boarded the bus he was taking home from university, shouting “Where is Yasin Alhomsi?”
They took him to prison, and thus began some of the darkest months of his life.
He slept on the floor of a crowded prison cell and shared his food with about 10 other men who all ate from the same dish. He was beaten, kicked and only allowed to use the bathroom twice a day. Prisoners were allowed only one shower each month.
The Syrian government has a lot of ways to pressure you, not only physically, also psychologically
“The Syrian government has a lot of ways to pressure you, not only physically, also psychologically. Maybe every two weeks comes somebody to tell me … today you will go to your home,” Yasin recalls. “You don’t know if in the future you will go back home or you’ll die … what the coming days will bring to you.”
His family was told nothing of his whereabouts until one day, seven months after his disappearance, when he showed up at home, 90 pounds lighter and almost unrecognizable to his family.
It took him several days to truly accept he was home.
“When I wake up in the bed, not on the floor, I don’t believe it. When I enter the bathroom, I don’t believe I am alone in the bathroom.”
He tried to go back to university, but they would not accept him for two semesters. Sympathetic students started a Facebook page to protest this decision, and finally Yasin was allowed back to finish his business administration degree. Majd was still in high school.
Alhomsi, who was by this time living in Vancouver, pressured the Canadian government to speed up the refugee applications for his sons. Late last year, he was told his sons would need to get to Lebanon for an interview with Canadian embassy officials.
This proved especially difficult for Yasin, who held no passport and was forbidden from leaving Syria. He crossed the border underneath a car after a perilous two-day journey, with Majd following shortly after.
The brothers set up in Beirut for what they hoped would be a short stopover en route to Canada. But it was seven months before their visas were ready, a perilous time given that Yasin was in the country illegally and lived in constant fear of police raids searching for unauthorized Syrians.
In an emotional reunion at Vancouver airport earlier this month, Alhomsi was finally able to embrace his sons after 15 years. They saw their eight-year-old half-brother for the first time since he was a baby and met their four-year-old half sister.
We … promise the great Canadian people that we will never disappoint their expectations and we will never rely on the Canadian government
Just over two weeks later, the brothers are slowly finding their feet in Vancouver. People have been kind to them, Majd says, helping them get around on transit. Someone from the City of Burnaby’s parks department came by with swimming pool passes for the whole family, and Majd plans to join a soccer team at the nearby Bonsor recreation centre. They are pleasantly surprised by the weather — similar to Damascus, says Majd, who was sporting denim shorts and sneakers on a recent afternoon.
Their most immediate and important priority, the brothers say forcefully, is to find work. They plan to attend resume-writing workshops and improve their English to make this easier and are willing to accept any position, Majd says.
While they appreciate the support government-assisted refugees receive their first year in Canada, Yasin says he wants to start paying his own way as soon as possible so that other Syrian refugees can benefit.
“We … promise the great Canadian people that we will never disappoint their expectations and we will never rely on the Canadian government,” adds Majd. “We work hard.”