When I left Syria to settle in Canada, I could finally be myself
“I like to live in a place where I can be free of my sexuality without being judged.”
I was born in Khiyarat Dannun, a small village in Syria. I have 11 siblings; I am number six. As a child, I loved watching my mother cook and helping my sisters do their hair and makeup. My mom thought I needed to toughen up, because cooking and applying makeup weren’t things men did. My father worked in the United Arab Emirates as a math teacher. He lived there during the school year, so we didn’t see him very often.
In 7th grade, I was sent to an Islamic boys’ boarding school in Damascus. At that time, I knew I was different, but I didn’t know I was gay. I didn’t even understand what it meant to be gay. After graduating, I studied Arabic literature at the University of Damascus and started to discover my sexuality. In the new internet cafes, I could search online to find other people from the queer community. There were secret places and underground parties where we could meet other homosexuals. We had to do everything in secret. In Syria, any form of “abnormal” sexual relations is illegal, including homosexuality. I also hid my sexuality from my family. I was afraid that they would deny me.
In 2014, when I was 28, I was drafted for military service in Syria. But I couldn’t do it. My only choice was to flee. I backpacked that evening, said goodbye to my mother and took a taxi to the Lebanese border, a four-hour drive away. Fortunately, I was able to get out of it.
I stayed with one of my brothers in Lebanon for 10 months, and finally landed in Istanbul, where I volunteered for a local LGBTQ+ organization. A colleague of mine suggested that I apply to live in Canada as a refugee, and I took her advice. A few months later, my application was accepted. I was so excited. I felt like Canada had adopted me. I didn’t know much about the country at that time. I knew it was cold and thought it was near the North Pole. I thought it would be like New York City in the movies – big bright lights and busy streets. More importantly, I knew Canada would accept me and my sexuality.
I moved to Ottawa in November 2016. At the airport, I was met by volunteers from a local organization, Capital Rainbow Refuge, which helps LGBTQ+ refugees settle in Canada. I lived with two of the volunteers – a gay couple – for free for the first six months. Then I rented a room in a shared house in Centretown.
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I remember the first time I went to a gay bar with the couple hosting me. I thought there would be bright flashing lights, like a nightclub, but in reality it was just men drinking beer and playing pool. I realized that being queer in Ottawa doesn’t mean going to clubs and partying all the time. You can just go for a beer or see a concert alongside people like you. I could go out anytime without having to hide who I am.
When I arrived, I worked remotely doing translation work for a company in Dubai. I worked there for two years and then landed a job with Max Ottawa, a nonprofit that promotes the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people. I organize programs for queer newcomers and coordinate our volunteers.
I was alone in Canada at first. Then, in 2019, one of my sisters was granted refugee status and moved here with her husband and four children. One day, out of the blue, she asked me if I was gay. I said, “Will this make a difference in our relationship?” She said no, so I told her. It was a huge relief.
I like to live in a place where I can be free of my sexuality – where I can wear my earrings, grow my hair and dye it, put on whatever I want without being judged. I focus on pursuing building a good life here. I enjoy biking and walking along rivers in Ottawa and Gatineau. I like jazz concerts in town, picnics with friends and seeing movies at the ByTowne cinema. I am still in contact with the volunteers who welcomed me at the airport in 2016. I am happy with where I am.
I still miss Syria, but I don’t know when I will be able to come back. Given that I’ve been so involved in activism for Syrians and the LGBTQ+ community, I don’t know if it will ever be safe for me to return. Anyway, half of my family left Syria. My mother passed away and several of my siblings moved to Europe. The Syria I love is only in my head. He does not exist anymore. What I have left are my memories. I write them down and tell other people about them. Sharing my experiences helps me heal.
This article appears in print in the September 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here or purchase the issue online here.