Basel Al Noserat has dreams.
Some are hopes for his future. Others are nightmares from his past.
The 25-year-old undergraduate student grew up in Syria, in a small town in the country’s south. Conflict in the once peaceful country took the lives of family members and friends. It drove him and his family from their home. But through it all, he refused to give up on what he wanted to accomplish.
Recently, he came to Canada as the first Syrian citizen to study at Western under the university’s Syrian Refugee Student Awards. The program covers tuition and living costs for eligible candidates. It is here he hopes to finally leave the nightmares behind, and ensure his dreams for the future become reality.
As the second-oldest child in a family of seven children, Al Noserat began working at an early age to help support his family and himself.
“Since I was young, around 12, I was working in my village,” he said. “After that, when I was 15, I would go in the summertime to Damascus, the capital, as a worker in different jobs, but mainly in a grocery store.”
Al Noserat did what he could to help his family, but never neglected his studies. Knowledge and education were always his top priority.
“I tried to work in summers because of school. I completed all my education – elementary and high school,” he said. “I got my high school diploma while working in the grocery store and after that I started studying engineering at university in Damascus. I was really happy.”
It was around this time, in early 2011, that anti-government protests escalated into a full-blown civil war between the country’s long-serving government and rebels seeking to oust it from office. The civilian population was caught in the middle, and Syria quickly became a very dangerous place.
Al Noserat’s family was living in a home closely bordered by two other houses – his grandmother’s and his uncle’s. One afternoon in 2012, when Al Noserat was at home with his family, the Syrian Army entered their village and began searching homes.
“The army came, they forced everyone in our three homes out to the street,” he said.
Al Noserat’s uncle was a nurse, who worked in a neighbouring town at a hospital run by the government. During the army’s search, they found medications among his possessions.
“They came back out, holding the medicine, shouting, ‘Why do you have this?’” Al Noserat said. “My uncle answered, ‘Because I am a nurse.’ But they didn’t believe him. They said he was using the medicine to treat and help foreigners.”
The army arrested Al Noserat’s uncle and demanded everyone else return inside.
“We were scared,” Al Noserat said. “The whole family was surprised and shocked and tried to ask for mercy. My grandmother was crying.”
The sight of his weeping grandmother gave Al Noserat hope. He thought an elderly woman pleading to keep her son would soften the army’s resolve. In a last-ditch effort to keep his uncle from being taken, Al Noserat led his grandmother back outside to talk to the officers.
“We got close. They shot their guns in (the) air, over our heads,” he said. “They hit me with a tool they carry, knocked me down. They said, ‘What the hell are you doing? Now we will take you too, when you don’t listen.’”
Al Noserat did listen. He led his grandmother back to the house, and watched from inside as officers took his uncle away.
It was the last time he ever saw him alive.
Three days later, Al Noserat’s uncle and 14 other people from the town were found in one of the village’s streets.
“We couldn’t recognize them – any of them,” says Al Noserat. “They were killed. They were tortured.”
In the months following his uncle’s death, Al Noserat and his family suffered through, and witnessed, numerous other tragic events: shootings that wounded children; bombings that took the lives of friends and neighbours. Al Noserat lost more family members to the violence.
“In the beginning we used to hear someone was killed, we would be shocked and cry and not take it – after a while it was normal – we got used to it,” he said. “We lived in a small village – we used to live in peace – we don’t care about politics or the Syrian army or Russia – we are simple people – but we just got the bombs – just randomly.”
Six months after his uncle was killed, Al Noserat and his family relocated to neighbouring Jordan as refugees. His studies now firmly on hold, he began volunteering with a humanitarian organization, helping other Syrians settle as refugees.
While he filled his days with positive work, his nights were filled with terror.
“All my dreams are damaged – every night the same subject – I dreamed the army would take me. They’d ask me to fight or kill me.”
After a year and a half in Jordan, despite hearing of more family and friends killed as a result of the ongoing conflict, his sister decided to return to Syria.
“She was depressed,” he said. “She wanted to study, but couldn’t in Jordan. So she went back.”
One of his brothers followed shortly thereafter, and eventually, the rest of his family went as well.
By this point in the Syrian conflict it was suspected the army was taking male students from the country’s universities and forcing them to enlist to fight. Women were not targeted for enlistment, making it safer for female citizens to study in the country. But Syria was no place for an adult male with academic aspirations.
“My dreams are to one day complete my study,” he said. “I couldn’t study in Syria.”
So he stayed in Jordan.
For a year and a half after his family returned to Syria he continued to volunteer, helping countless numbers of refugees settle in Jordan, the way he once had.
He also met people from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom through the humanitarian organizations. One told him about the opportunity to be sponsored to study at Western.
The university has established the Syrian Refugee Student Awards program that covers tuition and living costs for up to 10 students admitted to Western. Applicants must be Syrian citizens or residents with satisfactory academic standing.
Al Noserat met with officials at the Canadian Embassy to conduct placement tests, discuss his background and verify his education. Shortly thereafter he was told he was going to Canada. He arrived Dec. 29.
“It was like a miracle,” he said. “It was like I could not believe it.”
Al Noserat will spend his first year at Western studying at the Western English Language Centre (WELC) at the Faculty of Education, in order to improve his English. After that, he plans to study Civil Engineering. The degree will enable him to one day help rebuild his shattered country, as well as give back to his family in Syria, he said.
“You feel this war ruined a whole generation – many good people left to other countries, others died in the sea – lots inside Syria are scared to go to university because army will get them. I am very lucky, very thankful. I will help.”
And though he wants to rebuild Syria and help his family, he wants to repay Canada first.
“In our culture, if somebody helps us, we have to repay, have to help them more. Although I cannot return what this country and this school gave me, I will try.”
As he begins his new life in Canada, far from the war-torn country he used to call home, Al Noserat hopes his nightmares are finally coming to an end.
“I feel I’ve started to achieve my dreams in this country – it’s something huge. I am so happy,” he said. “If I lived two lives, I could never return everything that’s been given to me.”