When Zaher Abd Ulmoula made the seemingly impossible decision to leave his family behind in war-torn Syria, he was doing so in search of a better life.
On May 15, 2016, he landed in Nova Scotia with his sights on Dalhousie University and a Master’s degree in computer science.
After nine months of living in Bedford, where he’s being privately sponsored by his uncle, the 29-year-old sits in a meeting room on campus well on his way to accomplishing this goal.
He has encountered a few surprises along the way, like feeling just how cold a Canadian winter gets. But one thing he really wasn’t expecting was that Canada would change how he viewed the word “freedom.”
The law and power
“With Syria, we have freedom, but it depends on power,” he told the Chronicle Herald last Wednesday.
“Here, it depends on the law.”
Abd Ulmoula watched as this power struggle hit his city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. It landed his father and brother in the hospital for six months after they were hit by bomb aftershocks. Many of his friends fled in man-made rafts in search of refuge in Europe, costing one of his closest friends his life.
Homs has been dubbed by many as the “capital of the revolution” after residents embraced the call to overthrow the president in early 2011. After nearly six years of civil war, much of the city has fallen under control of various opposition groups. The government, led by President Bashar Al-Assad, is attempting to regain control.
But Abd Ulmoula says it’s still difficult to decipher who is good and who is bad. He doesn’t even know if there is a “good” side anymore. “Both sides kill people — innocent people.”
The human cost
According to a report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 470,000 people, and displaced nearly half of the country’s pre-war population of about 23 million.
In 2014, Abd Ulmoula was afraid he would be automatically enlisted in the military service — the same one he couldn’t trust.
So he packed his bags and moved to Turkey where he lived with friends, hopping from Istanbul to Zakaria and then Mersin. He managed to land a computer programming job in Mersin, but knew he wanted more.
Turkey’s cost of living isn’t cheap, and he didn’t have enough money to go back to school.
“You don’t have this ability to enjoy if you don’t have money,” he said.
Turkey to Nova Scotia
He stayed in touch with his uncle, who’d moved to Nova Scotia in 2003 and would often speak of the opportunities in Canada.
“In Turkey, I didn’t have a good future. I would be in the same situation. There is no developing,” he said.
“Here, I will have a better future.”
He arrived in Canada with a basic knowledge of English. In June, he began honing his skills at Dalhousie. He begins his Master’s degree program next year, after obtaining an undergraduate degree in IT engineering while living in Syria.
He spends most of his time at the university, involved in the Entrepenurship Society and the Syrian Student Society. Last summer he helped host a workshop called Code for Success, helping refugees build their own websites.
He has also experienced a couple of firsts since moving to the East Coast. He saw the ocean for the first time from his uncle’s backyard, and he experienced his first real snowfall this winter.
Safety and uncertainty
While he enjoys the Nova Scotian views, and the deep-rooted history of Halifax, he doesn’t know if he will be living in the province in five years, although he hopes to be working towards a PhD and eventually land a dream job at Google.
What he can say with certainty is that Canada is his home now.
He manages to stay in touch with his parents, three brothers and sister regularly, mainly through apps like Skype and Whatsapp.
He says they are all safe — for now.
“But after tomorrow, what happens? You don’t know.”
His definition of safe is different than most Nova Scotians. Safe, to him, means there are no bombs dropping right now.
He hopes one day his family will move to Canada, but none have been able to secure government sponsorship.
As for his native country, he hopes for peace and a return to normal life, one where residents don’t have to fear for their lives every time they wake up. One where tourists visit and gawk at historical landmarks in Dasmascus and Homs that date back to the Roman era.
In other words: “Start to return Syria back to how we know it to be.”
Original publish date: Jan. 23, 2017