“Tarek,” a refugee in Lebanon waiting to be resettled in Canada, is being hunted by family because he has converted to Christianity
Tarek, who has been living in Lebanon for more than a year, fears for his life because, he says, his father and brother have threatened to kill him for converting from Islam to Christianity.
Born and raised a Muslim in Syria, he was given the name “Tarek” in high school, when government officials wanted to enlist computer students to serve in an Internet surveillance program.
He never worked in the unit, but he has used the name to protect himself, both as a man fleeing Syria’s civil war and, more recently, as a recent convert to Christianity.
Now a refugee being sponsored by Toronto’s St. Philip Neri Catholic Parish in Downsview, Tarek* has spent more than a year waiting for his application to be processed so he can move to Canada.
But he maintains his assumed identity in Lebanon because he has been told his father and stepbrothers are determined to kill him for becoming a Christian.
“They are searching to cut my throat,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve been told they have hired someone to find me to get the mission accomplished.”
Tarek says he is nervous about the delays surrounding his move to Canada.
“Sometimes, I feel in danger. Especially when I go into the streets, when I come to Beirut. You never know if someone is looking for you.
“I’m living in a place where the majority are Muslims. So whenever I go to church on Sunday, they would know I’m Christian. So I don’t say anything about my religion, and when I go to mass, I say I am going to English classes because I plan to travel.”
He has spent the past three years living with deception, chaos and danger.
Before anti-government protests exploded into civil war in Syria, Tarek, at just 17, was arrested by police. He had been going to a store to buy bread when police swept through the neighbourhood rounding up protest leaders.
At the police station, he was beaten so badly he had a fractured skull and a broken arm, he says. He was held in a 9-square-metre cell with 40 other people.
When released he had to spend five days in hospital.
Five months later, he says, he was kidnapped and held hostage for 10 days by radical Muslim militiamen.
“I was taken with others from a school bus on my way home,” he says, explaining that radicals from two villages just outside Damascus were fighting for control of the area, and a group from one village took people from his village off a bus.
They demanded a ransom of a half-million Syrian pounds (approximately $10,000) but later released him unharmed.
By October 2012, the opposition Muslim militias and government troops began to fight for control of his town, and Tarek fled to Damascus with his mother.
“A plane flew over the town and dropped pamphlets telling everyone to leave . . . within three days, but before the day was out they started bombing and shelling,” he says. “We hid for three days in a basement and then left.”
But the war followed him, and while living with an aunt in Damascus, he says, he was stopped by police who demanded to know why he hadn’t registered to serve in the armed forces.
“I didn’t want to serve in the military. I’d lost my home and my school. I had nothing there. There was nothing for me. . . . And before the unrest had started in Syria I was secretly studying Christianity. A lot of my friends were Christians and I’d begun taking instruction from a priest.
“You are not allowed to convert in Syria. It is not allowed by law at all. I used to go to the priest to talk to him. I was interested to know more. I liked it, and after what happened in Syria, I decided to convert. It was the priest’s advice for me to get out and go to Lebanon.”
When he arrived in Beirut, he spent another two months continuing to receive instruction in the Catholic faith before deciding to get baptized.
“On the day that I was baptized, I was wondering if it was a good decision and I was asking God to help me understand what to do. That night, I had a dream I was praying on the top of a mountain and the whole sky crumbled and I heard a voice saying: ‘God is with you. Don’t be afraid.’ ”
When he finally does arrive in Toronto, Tarek will reassume his original identity, but he wants to adopt his baptismal name, John.
“I believe it will be a new beginning for a new life,” he says. “It’s a new dream. I’m optimistic, no matter how long it takes. It will be solved in the end.
“I’m sad to leave, of course. But the crisis will go on and there will be no more Syria. It is like if you are in love with a girl and then you have to attend her wedding to another man.”
Syrian refugees fear that if reporters used their full names, there might be reprisals if they returned home, or family still in Syria might be targeted.
Syria’s refugees have lost everything, in some cases even their names.
Many Syrian refugees insist on shielding their true identities and ask reporters to use only their first names, which was the case with these Atkinson stories. Others demand pseudonyms. International aid agencies working with the refugees encourage the practice because, in the Internet age with its infinite digital memory, refugees who return home might one day be held to account, or family members still trapped in Syria might suffer from association with them and what they say.