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Through the Eyes of a Refugee

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Being legally blind hasn’t stopped a young Syrian refugee from embracing a new life in Canada.

For someone who’s only 22, Hany Al Moulia has faced more than a lifetime of challenges.

He’s legally blind, yet is an accomplished photographer. He lost his home, his friends and his education, yet managed to hold on to his dreams during three long years in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

He’s now been living in Regina, Saskatchewan, for only nine months, yet he is already reaching out to help other refugees.

Hany is the oldest of six children; his youngest brother, Ashraf, was born on March 15, 2011, the day the Syria conflict began. Just a few weeks later violence shattered their comfortable neighbourhood in Homs, Syria’s once thriving third-largest city. Bombs fell, shells exploded and the family of eight huddled in one room, eating and sleeping together.

3 year-old Ashraf, and his brother Hany, pictured outside their family's shelter at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on 12 March 2014

3 year-old Ashraf, and his brother Hany, pictured outside their family’s shelter at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on 12 March 2014

“It wasn’t safe anymore to walk to school. We never knew when the bombs or bullets would come. Nobody knows who’s right or what’s wrong. There are no rules in Syria any more.”

A year and a half went by and Hany’s family tried to keep a sense of normalcy. Up until then, he lived the life of a middle-class teen, living in a neighbourhood surrounded by more than 200 of his relatives. Hany was a rapper, a writer, poet and a dreamer. In grade 9 he learned English by writing music videos online and reading Dan Brown novels. Bright and articulate, he wanted to go to university an become a communications engineer.

“There are no rules in Syria any more.”

Despite the shelling, Hany was determined to graduate from high school and he did, with excellent marks. But he knew there was a good change, even with this vision impairment, that he would be conscripted into the army. And then his cousins were murdered in their homes. It was time to get out.

Gaining safety, but losing hope

Hany fled first, followed a month later by the rest of his family. They paid a taxi driver to get them safely through the checkpoints, no questions asked, their destination an informal refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Hany’s most important possession was stuffed into his bag; his high school diploma and transcripts.

“These are my life, my future. I left everything behind in Syria, but not these,” he says in a UNHCR web series that documented his three-year life in the temporary settlement.

Hany pictured outside his shelter at a tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on 12 March 2014.

Hany pictured outside his shelter with his high school diploma at a tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on 12 March 2014.

The Al Moulia family rented a piece of land in the settlement and began living in their one room homemade shelter. Other extended family members were close by. At first, they thought they would only be there temporarily, but soon acknowledged that there was no going home. The realization that they were refugees sank in. Going from a busy life full of friends, activities and school work, Hany became depressed and listless. “It’s not life in the tented settlement that entraps me. I am not worried about hunger and cold. I am worried about the entrapment I feel inside.”

Then Hany received a phone call from UNHCR inviting him to a two-week photography and writing workshop. Brendan Bannon, a photojournalist from New York taught the course titled ‘Do you see What I See?’. Already interested in photography, Hany had been taking photos in Syria on his cell phone. His nystagmus (a visual impairment meaning he is legally blind) means Hany can only see things that are extremely close, yet he is a talented photographer.

Hany using his camera in Lebanon. UNHCR/Hany

Hany using his camera in Lebanon. UNHCR/Hany

A new lens on life

Hany’s photos in the camp are poignant, his accompanying captions illuminating life from his perspective. He says, “I think with photography that you should take the picture in your mind first.” He treats the camera as an extension of his mind and body, so that taking a photo is much more than figuring out settings and pressing the shutter.

His passion reignited, Hany heard that some of his friends who had also fled Syria were now beginning their university studies in places like Germany and Sweden. Hany applied for asylum. A year later, Canada called, offering the Al Moulia family resettlement in Regina through the government sponsored refugee program.

“We didn’t choose any country,” Hany says. “It was only Canada receiving new files at the time. But I was so happy for that. I wouldn’t choose any country over Canada. It was very good for us, especially because I spoke English.” Hany also thinks that his eye condition played a part in his family’s Canadians acceptance, based on the fact that Canada prioritizes refugees with certain medical needs.

Hany immediately started learning about Canada. “I read a lot,” he says. “I read about the weather, the immigrant system; the multiculturalism; it’s a very big country.” They arrived in Canada in June of 2015.

We are people like you – just interrupted

With help from Regina’s Open Door Society, a community agency, and financially supported for the first year by the federal government, Hany and his family are now living in a modern bungalow in a Regina suburb. His mother and father are currently attending English classes and his siblings are in school. Thanks to the University of Regina, whose president heard about Hany’s story, Hany is taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at the university that also accommodate his visual impairment.

Syrian refugees in Germany. UNHCR/Gordon Welters

Syrian refugees in Germany. UNHCR/Gordon Welters

At first Hany’s family was one of only about 10 Syrian refugee families in Regina. Now that the government has increased the number of Syrian refugees to 25,000 for 2016, Hany says there are over 40 families in the city. Now experienced newcomers, Hany and his family are helping the most recent refugees to settle into their new homes. They accompany them shopping, help set up phones and Internet services and volunteer at the Open Door donation centres, where newcomers can find furniture, household items and clothing.

Hany is acutely aware that he is his family’s lynchpin to this new life. He knows that the clock is ticking down the months left on the government support program. “It’s a big responsibility,” he admits. “Learning English is first for this family. Everything will be much easier once everyone learns English. Everyone will be able to do something.”

After he hones both his written and oral language skills, Hany would like to pursue a computer engineering or technology degree. He has an idea to design a fun and entertaining software program or app for people with visual impairments.

“I would also like to do photography and writing, do freelance journalism,” he says. “I’m doing that now. I’m working on a project documenting the life of refugees here, to show that they are just people who care about their families, their jobs and their education.”

The conviction that refugees are much like other Canadians is a message that Hany wants to convey. “There are people who don’t like refugees because they don’t know them,” he says. “I tell people that before coming here I had a normal life. We used to have everything that you have here. We are just interrupted. We are people just like you, skilled and educated…We can be successful because we will work hard and recover the things we lost.”

“Be patient. It takes time, be patient, everything will come.”

Hany understands that Canada is a country founded on immigration and that leaving someone or something behind is common to many Canadians’ experiences or backgrounds. “Everybody, even if you just move from one province to another, feels like you’re missing something, like you want to go back, that’s the immigrant experience,” he says. “That’s normal; everybody feels like that; just go to the next level, don’t ignore it, use that feeling. For me, if I were to say to myself, I wish that I could go back, the truth is it’s not happening. I can have new friends; I can have new things; I can bring that happiness that I used to have here,” he adds.

His advice to newly arrived refugees? “Be patient.” Hany knows that they are coming with equal measures of loss and expectation. But they should know that not everything is possible, right now. “It takes time, be patient, everything will come,” he says. “If you really go for it, everything will be fine…invest the most in this chance.”


Hany Al Moulia - image Jamie Napier and Caitlin McManus/Globe and Mail

Hany Al Moulia – image Jamie Napier and Caitlin McManus/Globe and Mail

Postscript

Hany and his family have now been living in Canada for two years. The family, and in particular Hany, are thriving. Hany won a scholarship and is now studying engineering at Toronto’s Ryerson University. He was also one of 15 young Canadians selected in 2016 to be the first members the Prime Minister’s Youth Council. He also speaks publicly at a number of events for WE Canada and One Young World.

Hany has told The Globe and Mail of his acceptance into Canadian life: “That’s a big step in my life. I’m considered a Canadian.”

Hany can be found on Twitter at @al_moulia


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