Mayson Al Misri at her new apartment in Hamilton, Ont. (Photo: Peter Bregg)
Mayson Al Misri at her new apartment in Hamilton, Ont. (Photo: Peter Bregg)

Topics: Justice | Human Rights

Now in Canada, White Helmet is haunted by the war

Mayson Al Misri and her husband Maan Al Aboud are now safe in Ontario, but she left a lot behind.

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For four years, from 2014 to 2018, Mayson Al Misri put on her white helmet and dove into the rubble to rescue her neighbours and save her city from the wholesale destruction Bashar Al Assad had called for. Then Assad made it personal, saying the leaders and the female White Helmets must die. In the dead of night on July 21, Al Misri was one of 422 who escaped Syria. This is her story.

“I was not afraid of dying. I was afraid of being caught and tortured,” she says matter-of-factly from the sparsely furnished living room in her Hamilton, Ont. apartment on a frosty November day. It had happened to others, and she knew the odds were against her. Mayson Al Misri, 43, had been a reporter, covering the lies the Syrian government was telling the people about the deadly attacks they had levelled against the innocent citizens in her home-town of Daraa. She was pressured by the government to blame the bad news on Al Qaeda and ISIS, who were also plaguing the city with their extremism, but Al Misri told the truth.

She joined the White Helmets after the regime had killed 10 members of her family, and learned how to use her wits to help her neighbourhood survive. She says, ‘You learn how to get from street to street by timing the bombings: the Syrian planes bomb a location, then they switch, and a Russian plane comes. The switch takes about 10 minutes — that’s when you make a run for it — one street to the next.”

There was no safe place for a female White Helmet who is being hunted by the regime. So when her colleagues Jihad and Farouq got in touch with her in early July and said, “Start moving,” she packed what she could in a backpack along with her husband Maan Al Aboud, 40, who is also a reporter but not a White Helmet. They began a perilous journey to what’s known among Syrians simply as “74” — a strip of land between Syria and Israel, and a supposedly demilitarized zone along the frontier that still contains about 40 Syrian villages. There were as many guns, rebels and fanatics as there were government forces between Daraa and this 500-square-kilometre stretch of no man’s land.

They were on the run for three weeks — sometimes without food and one full day without water. They lived under tarps and hid wherever they could. “We were scared all the time. The road wasn’t safe. It could be bombed, we could be seen and arrested. I knew to get to 74, we’d have to be very lucky.”

Mayson Al Misri shows a photo of her brother on her phone. (Photo: Peter Bregg)
Mayson Al Misri shows a photo of her brother on her phone. (Photo: Peter Bregg)

She couldn’t even say goodbye to her nieces and nephews — the children of her dead brothers and brothers-in-law. They went partway by car but worried about being stopped and eventually left the car to go by bus. “We were on the bus when I had a call from Jihad, who said, ‘Get off the bus right now, the regime is moving it to a government-controlled town.’” He told them to go to the Golan Heights border which they thought was a very unusual instruction. “Israel and Syria don’t have good relations. I wondered, how are we going to get help from our enemy? ISIS was on one side of us, the Syrian army was on the other. We were in the middle — more than 400 of us, all of us terrified — walking toward the Israeli border.”

At about 9:30 p.m., the gate opened and the order came to cross one family at a time. “I had to leave my backpack with my computer and camera and clothes behind. The only thing I could bring was my phone. That was because they needed to move us as quickly as possible and checking bags would take too long.” She shudders while retelling the story, remembering the abject fear she felt at the time. “I looked back – the last I saw of Syria was black smoke from the bombs and flashes of light from explosions. The regime was moving fast.”

They were bussed to the Ayzak Camp in Jordan where they stayed until their relocation to Canada on October 23.

Like about 30 other White Helmet families who came to Canada, they live in a small apartment with the bare necessities and are learning to speak English and looking for work. These extraordinary heroes who made a difference in the lives of so many Syrians are refugees now. And as much as Mayson is quick to say she’s happy in Canada, she admits her soul is in Syria. “I’m afraid to answer the phone, afraid it’s bad news.” She can’t call her surviving family members as it might tip the regime to their relationship, so she gets her news from others in a scattered chain of information. “I only think short term. I can’t think long term,” she says.

The agony of war and the memory of loss haunt this woman who says she can no longer cry. She scrolls through her phone naming each smiling person on the screen — a young man giving her a thumbs up, another boyish-looking fellow who is grinning at her. “Dead, my brother,” she says in her halting English, “dead, also my brother,” as the photos flash by. She knows she and her husband are safe now. “Canada is a place where you don’t have to be afraid. Everyone lives their own life here; no one looks at your religion or your scarf.” She’s very grateful for all that has been done to save her. But here in a strange city at the onset of winter, she struggles to hide her broken heart.

Sally Armstrong is an author and freelance journalist based in Toronto. She travelled to Iraq in February.

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