After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Enas Awad and her three children fled the city of Homs for Saudi Arabia. Then in 2018, thanks to a United church in Barrie, Ont., they came to Canada.
Amazed by the White Helmets, volunteer rescue workers who have saved thousands in rebel-controlled parts of Syria, Awad wanted to help promote their work somehow. She wrote a song, which Arabic singer Wasfi Massarani sang, to support the group’s nomination for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
Awad spoke with Julie McGonegal in June through a translator.
Julie McGonegal: How did the war affect you personally?
Enas Awad: When the revolution started, we were very happy that we had actually started doing something. But then people started being arrested by the government. Some of my neighbours and relatives were arrested, and then tanks were in the streets among the houses. The city I lived in was besieged. So many people were displaced in Homs. Many stayed in one underground shelter because of heavy bombings and attacks.
One of my sons has autism, and it was very hard for him to be in a place that not only didn’t meet the basic needs of a child with autism, but didn’t meet the basic needs of any child. There were no mattresses for us to sleep on, nothing at all, because people had to urgently leave their homes to hide in the shelter.
My youngest son was nursing and needed milk. Because the city was besieged, they were preventing anything from coming in or out. Electricity was off. There was no water, no food. No pharmacies were open. There was not even milk for the kids. It was very hard for me to produce milk for my youngest son. I started mixing my [breast] milk with rice and then I lost my milk.
JM: How did you come to be sponsored?
EA: I wanted to come to Canada. A member of the Syrian community used to work for Lifeline Syria, which actually had some business with the United Church. He tried to reach out to some of the church groups and eventually Collier United in Barrie, Ont. decided to sponsor my family.
JM: You look very happy right now. It was life-changing for you.
EA: For sure. I am so happy because my son, who has autism, who has never, ever been in school, graduated from a school here yesterday. After we had been in Saudi Arabia [on a temporary visitor’s visa] for a few years, my daughter managed to get accepted at a school there, and she was at the top of her class in science. But they would not let her take part in science competitions. Here in Canada, she is doing absolutely amazing in all of her subjects. I am happy because my kids are safe and they have a secure future.
I feel so lucky to have come to Canada through the sponsorship system. The church sponsorship group has helped me a lot with integrating into Canadian society. People are so welcoming and always interested to know about our lives. I am speechless; I can’t use proper words to say thank you.
JM: How did you begin working on behalf of the White Helmets in 2014?
EA: When they were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, I began supporting them, because at that point, they needed votes to win. So I was writing about them on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Then I wrote song lyrics. I wasn’t working with them directly, but supporting them through media. I was so happy to do that because they are a humanitarian group with no affiliation with the two parties fighting in Syria.
When I first learned about them, I had to start talking more about them — using social media. Then, because the Western media generally and the Arabic media were trying to show that the White Helmets were terrorists and sponsored by the U.S. and other countries, I knew we needed to do something further to portray the right image of the group.
At that time, I was working with another Arabic actor and singer, Wasfi Massarani, who used to sing revolutionary songs for the Syrian revolution. Songs can have influence.
I had a connection with one of the volunteers in the White Helmets. I was doing an interview as part of an article I was writing about him. He was describing his experience saving kids from under the rubble, and how he has seen so many of them die under bombs and airstrikes. I felt I had a responsibility to tell the whole world about the heroic work that these people are doing.
JM: What’s the situation like for the White Helmets today?
EA: Syria is no longer breaking news on Western news channels, but the White Helmets are still working to save people, especially in Idlib, on the western side of Syria, which is being bombed almost daily. They’re still getting people out of the rubble. They are losing volunteers. They’re dying.
JM: What does it feel like to be here, while knowing what you know about the continuing situation in Syria?
EA: Syrians around the world who live outside the country are trying to live a new life, and yet they can’t separate themselves from what is happening in Syria. Two weeks ago, one of the revolutionaries, the football player Abdul Baset al-Sarout, died in an attack in Idlib. All Syrians were mourning him. We get to the point where we feel depressed.
I am trying to be happy in my English-as-a-second-language classes, but sometimes I feel like I want to scream. I am overcome with sadness. We are on the other side of the planet now, but we know that our fellow Syrians are still dying for us, for our freedom, for our democratic rights. Syrians will struggle to keep going, but some days we feel so depressed, and other days we feel determined to fight. Then we feel depressed again. The cycle goes on and on.
Sometimes I feel survivor’s guilt. I am in a safe, secure place while other Syrians are not.
JM: Can you tell me about your writing?
EA: I wrote a novel in Arabic about a Syrian family’s experience during the war. The idea started with my friend. She was arrested and detained in one of the government prisons, where she was tortured and raped. In telling me her story about how her community has dealt with her because of her rape, she said she sometimes wants to simply go back to the prison and die there. The novel focuses on the Syrian woman as a sister, as a single mother, as a woman who lost her husband, her brother, her neighbour, her friend — how much she has had to pay in the Syrian revolution. The costs are especially high for women and children.
After women left the prisons, they were targeted by their own communities. In addition to the besieged cities, to the bombing, the Syrian regime used women as a pressure tactic because of their place in society. They were like, “If I want to get her brother, I can put pressure on him by arresting his sister and raping her.” So then, the brother would simply give himself to the government. Some girls who were 14 or 15 years old who had no knowledge of what’s happening, who were never involved in demonstrations, would be arrested and raped because the regime wanted their brothers.
JM: This is still going on. What can Canadians do?
EA: What I love about Canadian society is that there are well-educated people who have freedom and democracy. If they were more knowledgeable about Syria, they could put more pressure on the government at some level to have the president removed and the prisoners released. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are now in prison and dying under torture.
At least governments of the Western world, including Canada, can do something about it. If people pressured the government, and the government pressured the U.N. Security Council, then they would set some rules that would stop the president’s actions and have U.N. staff investigate the conditions in the prisons. Much can be done, but there is not enough knowledge because there is not enough media coverage. We don’t blame the Canadian people, because it is hard to know what is happening in Syria without media coverage. There should be more Syrian-Canadian meetings where people can discuss political issues and raise more awareness.
JM: Where do you draw your energy from? What gives you hope?
EA: I am inspired by the Syrians who are still inside the country and still making sacrifices. And I think: Why would I give up now, when I am living in such good conditions? The other part is being the mother of a child with special needs. Giving up is not an option. I have to keep going for my kids.
“White Helmets,” by Enas Awad, translated from Arabic
From cities reduced to rubbleAwash with torrential painIssues forth a whimper, pleading,From a ruined home,They rush out, searching for a lifeBleeding under the earthMany a child they have snatchedFrom the jaws of death,They emerge from the ruins,breathing life into bodies,Targeted for extermination.They’re never absent, always awake,And ever ready,To sprinkle flowers of peace.………………Under bombardment, shadows loom,Undeterred by the siege,Their faces beam with smiles.Their hearts abound with cheer.They cut through night of sorrow.Like beacons illuminating gloom,Like angels of light,Wiping tears of despair.………………..The sound of tormenting oppression stings like glowing cinders,Lit by the fire of despots.No one cares about their plight,And the world is fast asleep.From under the rubble they seek,To keep a glimmer of hope alight,To dispel fear and fright,Seizing mother’s hearts……………………………Forgotten cities tell stories of unspeakable horrors.With their own hands,They planted the roses in the wreckage of memories.Their spirits hover,Looming high over mountains of sacrifices.They are like shooting stars streaking the pitch-dark sky,Illuminating the road to peace.
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