He smiled. Daroo had always seemed very serious, almost unapproachable. He struck me as being in his late 20’s, and he never cracked a smile. Ever.
Until the morning I put down my only grocery purchase – two large pomegranates. He smiled. I asked if he liked pomegranates, and he answered wistfully “We have two pomegranate trees in the garden, back at my home.” When I asked him where “home” was, Daroo responded “Syria”. When pressed further, he added “in a small village near Aleppo”. Instantly, I understood the underlying sadness that his face always expressed. Hoping that Daroo might share the story of how he had come to Vancouver by way of Aleppo, asked if we could meet for coffee. He agreed.
Daroo was born in a Kurdish village near Afrin. It sits near the north-west border of Syria and Turkey. The region is called “Kurd-Dagh”, the Mountain of the Kurds. His parents still live there. The village is famous for its bountiful olive, fig and pomegranate trees. Daroo says that once you taste Afrin’s fruit, all others will forever pale in comparison.
“Neighbouring Azaz is also home to many Turkmen and Arab communities. Almost everyone, Kurds included, is Sunni Muslim. Kurdish identity is based not on religion, but on ethnicity and cultural heritage. Overlooking the Afrin River, within sight of the Turkish border, sprawl the vast Roman ruins of Cyrrhus” – Diana Darke, BBC
The thriving, ancient Syrian city of Cyrrhus was founded in 300 BC, by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander The Great’s generals. Its history over the centuries includes Roman, Armenian, Byzantine/Justinian, Muslim and Crusader rule.
Daroo was born into a family of five sisters and one brother, with lots of aunts and uncles. He played with his brother, sisters and friends in the family garden and roamed the streets of his village and Afrin. He remembers that when he was a child, all the members of his family had to sign an Oath of Allegiance to the ruling Ba’ath Party, led by Hafez al-Assad. The family avoided politics, and the community was largely left to its own devices.
Daroo also remembers, that even as a young boy, he knew that he was “different”. He knew early in his life that he was gay. He was not alone – when he eventually went to work and study in Aleppo, he discovered a large, vibrant underground LGBTQ community, where he fit right in. The Hafez al-Assad Regime enforced Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, which prohibits “carnal relations against the order of nature”, and provides for up to three-years imprisonment. Members of that community have been and continue to be jailed, beaten and often executed. Neighbors and even family members continue to inform on others.
Someone reported Daroo in 2008. In jail for 5 days, in an underground cell, he and several friends were packed into “a shithole” where he often had to sleep standing up, hearing endless beatings and screaming. He himself was beaten so severely, that he passed out. The five days felt like five years. His frantic family pooled their resources and paid the local police and judges, expensive bribes. He, his two gay and one transgender friends, were finally released from jail. Even though he was released, he had to go back and forth to court for a year. Fortunately he was given parole.
In 2011 The Arab Spring, which had given so many in the Arab world hope, was hijacked by radicals, but all that the Kurds really wanted, was a secular Syrian Democracy. Life began to change for the worse. Even in the face of all of these challenges, Daroo found something that would underpin his life forever…
Daroo fell in love with the writings of William Shakespeare. He majored in English Literature at Aleppo University. The Bard’s plays transported Daroo to another time, another place – but they also spoke of the very contemporary treachery, horror, loves, lives, wars, births, deaths and laughter that were life in Kurdish Syria. Daroo and his classmates wrote their final exams in 2013. While he sat in the eerily quiet exam hall, with pen in hand, the Russians carpet-bombed the University.
His passion for Shakespeare shaped Daroo’s decision to remain in his family’s Aleppo home, even after they had returned to the relative safety of Afrin, because the Bashir Al Assad – Putin regime stepped up bombardments of Kurdish communities and “rebel strongholds” like Aleppo. On that fateful day in 2013, all around him, many of them friends as well as classmates, 80 students, died. Daroo kept his head down. He kept writing. “I studied so hard and so long I wanted to graduate or die. I wasn’t afraid, I was fatalistic.”
Daroo passed. Aleppo University exams were suspended for a month. Although he didn’t realize it, he was still in shock. The day he was awarded his BA in English Literature, he also received an official notice from the Syrian government, saying that he was drafted into the Syrian military, and must report to basic training. Then and there, Daroo made one of the most difficult decisions of his life. Leaving his beloved family, he fled to Turkey.
Months before, Daroo met a farmer who transported tea and cigarettes into Turkey, in bags on the backs of several donkeys that he owned, in order to support his family, including small children. The man lived in the next village Sheeh, one village over from Afrin. Daroo helped carry some of those bags across the border into Turkey.
His sister had married a Turkish man and was living in Turkey. She had a passport and met Daroo after he crossed the border. He sat, emotionally exhausted, as she drove back to her family home. Daroo lived with his sister and brother-in-law for the next year. They all worked cutting fabric 12 hrs/6 days/per week for 600 turkish lira ($140 Cdn), to survive.
Daroo had applied for a passport before fleeing Syria. Amazingly, a year later, his passport in Aleppo was ready. He stole across the border to Afrin and bribed someone to steal his passport and bring it to him in Afrin. Passport in hand, he fled Syria for Turkey, and eventually made his way to Canada, Vancouver… And a New Life.
To be continued … Pomegranates 1
Footnote. Have never been a chest-pounding smug Canadian, but am very proud of our Country for taking in over 50,000 Syrian Refugees over the past four years. Many people came to Vancouver, and in spite of facing so many challenges, continue to enrich our Community in many ways. Yes, our social support systems are stretched – but life for those who fled the horrors of the Syrian war and impending Kurdish Genocide, is now bearable.