Mustafa Zakreet, the first Syrian refugee sponsored in Salmon Arm, happily becomes a Canadian citizen in November 2019. (Contributed)

Mustafa Zakreet, the first Syrian refugee sponsored in Salmon Arm, happily becomes a Canadian citizen in November 2019. (Contributed)

Devastation of Syria, loss of family cast shadow over refugee’s life in Salmon Arm

Mustafa Zakreet grateful to be in Shuswap, wishes world would intervene in Syria

“I’m doing good,” he says. It’s sadness, though, that permeates the interview.

Mustafa Zakreet, 27, the first refugee from Syria to be sponsored in Salmon Arm, speaks of his life after four years and two months in Canada. The day he arrived was a cold and snowy Jan. 11, 2016 – a shock to the system for a young man from Homs, Syria.

In November he accomplished a most important goal.

“I got my citizenship; that was a big deal.”

He now also has his passport so he can travel, with the intention to visit family.

Although he’s very grateful to be in Canada, thoughts of his family members who are not here and the devastation which is Syria’s reality, occupy him, rarely leaving his mind.

“I don’t know about happy,” he responds when asked.

Syria is being destroyed. His family is separated throughout the world.

His oldest brother and family have been in a refugee camp in Lebanon for eight years, as has one sister. Another sister and family are in a refugee camp in Jordan and it’s been almost nine years since he’s seen her. He worries about them regularly.

“My body is here, my mind is everywhere.”

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Mustafa, his father Mohammad and youngest brother Abdul fled Syria after his mother and brother were killed by bombs.

His father died in Salmon Arm on Oct. 17 last year at 60 years of age due to heart problems, undoubtedly exacerbated by all the strife. 

With help from his supports in the community, Mustafa and family began the process three years ago to bring his older brother and family from Lebanon. Thinking they were just two months away from success, a missing document from the Canadian government derailed the process. They are still trying.

It was Mustafa’s father’s wish that he see his eldest son before he died.

The whole situation is difficult, Mustafa understates.

“When you explain the situation to others, they probably will hear you and feel sorry for you for a couple of minutes and then it’s over. To me and for everyone who’s experiencing what I’m experiencing, it’s difficult.

He gives the example of two weeks earlier when he was preparing for a midterm.

“Suddenly you hear your cousin was killed and left five kids. And his wife is stuck now in the northern region near Turkey.”

“You want to tell someone about it and they don’t want to listen or it doesn’t mean anything to them. People are so happy; they’re preparing for their exam, or Valentine’s Day or whatever. You have totally different feelings, you’re isolated somehow.”

His cousin, in his mid 30s, was hit by a missile in Aleppo, near the border with Turkey.

“That’s where the safe zone should be, that’s what Turkey and Syria have agreed upon, and now the Syrian government decided not to leave the safe zone anymore and they have taken over it. Now there are about 600,000 refugees trying to leave the area.”

“The forces of the government keep moving forward. It just keeps getting worse and worse. Many souls are being threatened.”

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He said his cousin’s wife will be stuck, along with thousands of other families. He remembers the situation well.

“Just waiting there for either someone to get you out, or die.”

He says Turkey has so far welcomed more than 2.5 million refugees, which no other country has done. Refugees now under attack are hoping Turkey will again open the borders, but he’s doubtful.

“Their economy, I don’t know how much more they can take. But if no other countries give the support…”

It’s unbearable witnessing what is happening, he says.

“The border countries keep saying they can’t take any more. Which means that these people stuck in that small geographic area in Syria are facing certain death. I see videos every day of kids starving and women screaming…

What can people in Salmon Arm and Canada do?

“I don’t know how much help they could provide. They did a lot by welcoming refugees but the number is just crazy big.

“We’re talking about 70 per cent of the population of the country has left, either displaced internally within the country or out of the country… Thirteen or 14 million people.”

It brings climate change to mind. Mustafa has studied environmental engineering and would like to oppose things that threaten the environment. But he points out climate change is threatening people in the future, while generations are dying now in Syria, more than a million killed, with the world doing nothing about it.

Mustafa says he once dreamt of a peaceful world, not just his country, but he really doesn’t dream anymore.

He again makes a comparison to climate change, pointing out it’s a global issue, one that all countries need to think about, not just those already suffering from it.

Asked if he’s encountered much prejudice in the Shuswap, he says no, just a couple of instances.

He and his father were talking in Arabic on a local bus when a woman told them to speak English. He just said, “OK, thanks.” His dad, who didn’t speak English at all at that time, asked Mustafa what she said. He told him that she was just saying hello to them.

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Nine Syrian families who came as refugees live in Salmon Arm, thanks to the work of the many people who support them.

Mustafa’s face and voice brighten when he speaks of his family in town.

His youngest brother Abdul is graduating high school this year so, in keeping with his father’s wishes, Mustafa has taken on a fatherly role, helping guide him with his university plans.

Mustafa himself, who was educated in engineering in Syria, completed his civil engineering degree at UBCO on the Dean’s list, and is now taking structural engineering.

He will take time off to work for a couple of years as he couldn’t earn money this past summer while caring for his father.

He enjoys playing soccer in Salmon Arm, a sport he’s played since he was six, and loves to get together with the Syrian men to play Trix, a card game, and talk about the situation in Syria.

Reading is a favourite pastime; he most enjoys famed author, physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

Asked if there’s anything typically Canadian that he loves, he smiles.

“I’m loving the snow, one of the things I thought I wouldn’t love. It’s not that big of a love,” he laughs, “but something I thought I’d never survive. Now I’m just enjoying it.”

Regarding food, he has developed a penchant for spicy chicken burgers. And Tim Hortons coffee with lots of cream. Even his dad, who he didn’t think would like it, would often request the coffee.

“I do believe there is addiction in there.”

Mustafa grins broadly when he speaks of his nieces, Laura and Layan, daughters of his brother Ahmad and spouse Fatima, who came to Salmon Arm about a year after he did.

“Kids fill the house with joy. We spend a lot of time together. It’s just the best having them.”

As for long-term plans: “I’m Canadian now. I’m just going to spend my life here, get married, have kids, buy a house, live a simple life – that’s the plan.”

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Map of Syria. Turkey is to the north. (File photo)

Map of Syria. Turkey is to the north. (File photo)

Mustafa Zakreet, a Syrian refugee who came to Salmon Arm in 2016, and his niece Larah enjoy a special moment. (Contributed)

Mustafa Zakreet, a Syrian refugee who came to Salmon Arm in 2016, and his niece Larah enjoy a special moment. (Contributed)

Salmon Arm’s first refugee from Syria, Mustafa Zakreet, and his niece Larah have fun at the Salmon Arm wharf. (Contributed)

Salmon Arm’s first refugee from Syria, Mustafa Zakreet, and his niece Larah have fun at the Salmon Arm wharf. (Contributed)