By JENNA HICKMAN
As the streets of Syria become littered with rubble and bodies, Syrian activist groups in Canada are doing everything they can to get help to their home country.
With more than 40, 000 dead since the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, Syrian activists are calling for help.
Through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Canada has donated up to $12 million to international humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria. A figure well behind the $80 million Great Britain just put forward.
Most recently, Canada donated $2 million to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. That money was originally to go to a Canadian-based group, Canadian Relief for Syria, but the government cancelled their grant to the group when finance minister John Baird said he had some “concern” during the negotiation.
He said the government pulled out when it was learned that all of the money donated to the group would not go to medical aid, but the charity denied the allegation.
Riam El-Sasadi, a representative of Canadian Relief for Syria, says he is very disappointed by the Canadian government.
“The management [is] trying to supply and provide help only in areas that are under the regime. Other areas that see devastation and daily bombardment, they wouldn’t see a lot of the aid,” said El-Sasadi.
El-Sasadi moved to Vancouver from Damascus 12 years ago to make a better life for his family. He says he believes it is the most beautiful city he has ever seen.
Vancouver is home to around 1,000 Syrians. Although the Syrian community is small its voice is loud and well heard among the city. El-Sasadi is an activist within the “Syrian Revolution – Vancouver” Facebook group.
In September, El-Sasadi accompanied the Medical Relief for Syria group as the team photographer.
Medical Relief for Syria is an organization that brings doctors from North America to Syria in order to train Syrians on the ground how to give medical support to the injured.
El-Sasadi brought drawings done by elementary school children from Vancouver to give to the Syrian children.
“I went to deliver them to the Syrian kids so I can alleviate and inspire them that they are not alone, “ said El-Sasadi.
When asked about the children’s reaction to the drawings, El-Sasadi had to take a moment to collect himself. Through broken speech and muffled words, El-Sasadi described the scene at the refugee camps he visited.
“I had to go on a motorcycle from home to home just to find kids because most of them left, until I [found] one that was hidden in a school. They were refugees in a school. I tried to give [the drawing to] the child, and at the end they smiled with tears in their eyes …It’s difficult when you see a kid and they have a bullet in their eyes and they don’t smile,” said El-Sasadi
The children of Syria were a main focus for El-Sasadi. His goal was trying to distract the children from the conflict surrounding them.
“If we could help put most of the children back in school so they couldn’t keep thinking about the war, this would help them psychologically,” said El-Sasadi.
Currently, the money being given to Syria is going towards medical supplies and food. On Nov. 1, Paul Dewar of the NDP put forward a motion at the Foreign Affairs committee saying that Canada should put more money towards the conflict in Syria.
“We can’t stand back while Syria’s humanitarian crisis continues to grow. Over 30,000 people have died so far and the number of refugees could rise to over 700,000 by the end of the year,” said Dewar at the committee. “Canada must show leadership.”
More specifically, the NDP wants the money to go towards education in Syria, and possibly bringing Syrians that have family in Canada to study here in this country.
For Anas Marwah, a fourth year Law and Mass Communications student at Carleton University, education is a vital way in which the Canadian government can help in Syria. Marwah was with Dewar at the Foreign Affairs committee when the motion was brought up.
“The whole education aspect of it is really great, [The government] is actually going to be able to connect people with their family here and give them scholarships,” said Marwah.
Now 21-years-old, Marwah moved from Syria when he was in Grade 1, due to his father’s political views opposing the Assad regime. Marwah is the event co-ordinator of the Syrian Student Association of Ottawa and is a devoted activist within the Syrian conflict.
Marwah says he believes education is an easy way for the Canadian government to get involved and help the people of Syria.
“That’s what we need to get Canada to do, and it can do,” Marwah said regarding giving aid to educating Syrian students. “Believe it or not, Canada is a dream choice for many Middle Eastern people” said Marwah.
If the new motion passes it will be easier for Syrians with family members in Canada to come study in the country.
Canada is one of the best options for foreign students because tuition is cheaper in comparison to the United Kingdom and the United States where the average amount students pay for tuition is around $20,000 per year. According to Statistics Canada, the average tuition fees for a Canadian student are around $6,000 annually.
No Canadian based schools are currently offering scholarship opportunities for Syrian students trying to escape the conflict.
“Unless their presence here was facilitated by a scholarship program that we administer, we do not have services that are targeted to students from a specific program,” said Nicole Findlay of The International Student Services Office at Carleton University.
“In the event that students are facing severe difficulties of some sort, their cases are considered on an individual basis,” said Findlay.
It is not just Syrians that were previously enrolled in school that want education, but Syrians who did not have education prior to the regime now believe that education is key, says Marwah.
Marwah says that the revolution has changed the lives of many Syrians, some for the better.
“I know some people who used to deal drugs in Syria, through the borders on Turkey,” said Marwah. “Now they take medicine inside of the country, they take food inside of the country… after the revolution they became different people, they think now that they ‘have good experience to do something with my life,’.”
Currently more than 120,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey and many attending school, but Turkish schools cannot accommodate all the new Syrian students.
Though some Syrian students now have the opportunity to keep up their studies, many find it difficult to understand what they are learning because of the language barrier.
“Turkish culture is one culture and I don’t think they’ll let anyone or any wars impact that, I don’t think that there will be any school that will be teaching in Arabic unless Syrians make [the schools] themselves,” said Selin Kum a second year journalism student at Carleton University. Originally from Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, Kum has a lot of family still in Turkey.
It’s not just the Syrian students that have to adapt to a new way of schooling, but the experience is new for Turkish students as well.
“Thinking back to when I lived in Turkey, if we met anyone that wasn’t Turkish it was like ‘whoa, what are you doing here?’ said Kum.
“I think it will be just different for the students growing up with Syrians and the Syrians having to adjust to Turkish life and culture,” she added.
However Carleton International Relations Professor Kathlean Fitzpatrick believes education is not relevant at all amongst everything else that is needed in Syria.
“The situation is about exploitation and oppression and murder. Which is why medicine matters, because people are bleeding. They don’t have time to read books and reading books wouldn’t help,” said Fitzpatrick.
“They don’t need to be educated, they need to be emancipated,” Fitzpatrick said.