Prelude to catastrophe

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Kalashnikov-toting gunmen rampaged through the dusty, bullet-scarred streets, looting, raping and killing anyone who stood in their path, as Somalia ripped itself apart in a storm of bloodshed.

The year was 1992, and eight-year old Sharmarke Mohamed could only look on in horror as his country collapsed around him.

Nineteen years before the horrors of civil war engulfed Syria, Mohamed was too young to fully understand a catastrophe that claimed the lives of neighbours and schoolmates seemingly without rhyme or reason.

“I remember that everyone would sleep with fear of not knowing what would happen tomorrow to you, your family, and not having protection or anywhere where you could receive safe haven,” said Mohamed.

Sharmarke Mohamed, as seen on his Twitter profile photo.

What had actually happened was that rebel forces had toppled Somalia’s hated military dictator Siad Barre in 1991, triggering a civil war that plunged the country into anarchy. Rival warlords and their militias battled it out for control of the capital Mogadishu and other cities. Law and order broke down completely and the police simply ran away— leaving Somali civilians at the mercy of armed thugs who imposed their own rules at gunpoint.

Somalia's capital Mogadishu, left ruined by warfare in the 1990s. (Wikimedia).

Young Mohamed didn't understand politics then. All he knew for sure was that he was terrified – and that he had to escape Somalia if he wanted to stay alive.

Somalia’s crisis was a foretaste of another looming catastrophe. Twenty years after Barre was driven out of office, an even bloodier civil war destroyed Syria and drove half its population from their homes.

As in Somalia, the war began when Syria’s people revolted against the often-brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The demonstrations escalated into a bloodbath as the regime clamped down, triggering a full-scale armed rebellion.

Just as his own country’s civil war was a prelude to the Syrian cataclysm, Mohamed’s journey to freedom prefigured that of millions of Syrians, including young men and boys just like him.

Slow boats to Kenya

For Mohamed, the only way out of Somalia was a dangerous boat trip down the East African coast to Kenya in a rickety vessel. Many boats sank, drowning refugees in the Indian Ocean. The lucky ones made it to Mombasa, a port city on the Kenyan coast.

“The Somali BBC radio was announcing those boats that were lost,” recalled Mohamed.

But there was no image of a Somali Alan Kurdi—or the ubiquity of Internet-based digital images—to galvanize public opinion and help refugees like Mohamed.

Instead, Mohamed’s only reward was a Kenyan refugee camp, where the boy would spend the next five years. He did not disclose whether he made it out of Somalia with his family, or was forced to flee by himself, one child among thousands.

“I don’t want to answer that question,” Mohamed told National Observer in a reluctant tone.

His ordeal was such a whirlwind that over two decades later, he isn’t sure whether the memories are all his own or if he was recalling what surviving relatives told him about Somalia.

What is certain is that the war forced him to abandon his education.

“I was a child. I wasn’t able to go to school, so I missed all my schooling,” said Mohamed.

Chapter 1

Arab Spring, refugee winter

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The next stop for Mohamed – still only a boy – was Ethiopia and later Egypt, where he settled for a time in the capital Cairo.

Cairo is the Arab world’s beating heart: streets lined with hulking apartment blocks and heaving with traffic, filled with dust and the noise of blaring car horns; a cityscape of traditional bazaars beneath swanky office towers and condos that wouldn't look out of place in Toronto or Vancouver.

It was there that Mohamed finally managed to complete his education, but as a refugee and foreign resident he had to pay for it out of his own pocket.

“You are considered as a foreigner,” recalled Mohamed.

Once he graduated university, he fell into the same black hole that traps refugees all over Egypt: as non-citizens, they are not legally allowed to work.

It was only thanks to the support of relatives that Mohamed managed to survive in Cairo.

In 2011, Mohamed once again bore witness to bloodshed on the streets of his adopted home. In January of that year, massive street protests against the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak rocked Egypt, as Egyptians revolted against corruption, police brutality, and high prices.

Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo became the focal point for violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces, leaving many injured or killed— but the whole city descended into a chaos that for Mohamed was eerily reminiscent of his Somalian childhood.

The police melted away as local vigilantes took their place, arming themselves with bats and other crude weapons to defend their homes and shops against looters.

“The whole street system went down,” recalled Mohamed. “I remember there was no police. Everyone was protecting their own block. It reminded me all over again of Somalia.”

An Egyptian Army truck set ablaze by protestors in 2011. (Wikimedia).

As Mubarak’s regime collapsed and jubilant Egyptians took to the streets, the refugees in their midst were abandoned and afraid. International aid organizations evacuated their staff, said Mohamed, leaving no one to help people like him.

This was the Arab Spring, and Egypt was only one of several countries— including Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and Syria— facing citizen uprisings. In March 2011, a group of Syrian teenagers spray-painted ‘The people want the fall of the regime’ on a wall in the town of Daraa. Security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad arrested and tortured them. Protestors subsequently took to the streets, demanding their release.

Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of Syrians mounted nationwide anti-regime protests, triggering a bloody crackdown by President Assad. This in turn sparked a full-scale civil war that has now claimed roughly 300,000 lives to date and left his country, heir to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, in ruins.

The war has also triggered the worst refugee crisis since World War II, as more than four million Syrians have fled the country and are fleeing in their thousands to Europe via Turkey. Some trek overland, smuggling themselves across borders. Yet others clamber into rickety boats and rafts, preferring the risk of drowning and an uncertain future to their present reality—just as Mohamed and his fellow Somalians did 23 years ago.

But as the Middle East was going up in flames, Mohamed's ship finally came in.

Chapter 2

Canadian Spring

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In June 2012, Sharmarke Mohamed stepped off a plane in Winnipeg, ready to begin his new life in Canada. The boy who had fled Somalia in a boat two decades ago was now a grown man— albeit a single one without a wife or children—the type of individual the Canadian government is now singling out, as it resettles thousands of Syrian refugees, pushing unattached men to the back of the line.

Mohamed's lucky break came when he received family and community sponsorship in Canada. This allowed him to apply as a refugee, an application accepted by Canadian officials in Egypt.

For Mohamed, coming to Canada was “the biggest success” in his troubled life. For the first time, he felt truly free and safe.

“I was like, oh my God, life is starting now.”

But Winnipeg, a frigid prairie city a world away from Cairo’s heat and noise, did not keep Mohamed for long.

Instead, he kept moving west to Victoria, where he landed a job at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society as a settlement worker, where he helps newcomers to Canada adjust to their new home.

His job focuses on helping immigrant and refugee youths to integrate into Canadian society. He assists new arrivals in navigating the school system, accessing needed services, and bringing teens together to share their experiences in supervised workshops.

When not helping his fellow immigrants – a job that he finds highly rewarding – Mohamed is a refugee advocate in Victoria, raising awareness of their plight with the general public. He also serves as an executive member at the Canadian Council of Refugees.

“I always say I got an arranged marriage to Victoria – because I got the job here. Who says arranged marriages can’t work?” joked Mohamed.

Mohamed's biography now reads as part of the canon of Canadian immigrant success stories—the young person who overcomes tremendous adversity to build a new life in a new home. He has whole-heartedly embraced Canada’s secular democratic values. His life is a rebuttal to those who claim that Muslim refugees will seek to impose Sharia religious law on Canadians.

In fact, Mohamed repeatedly professes his faith in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the civil rights legislation drawn up when Justin Trudeau’s father was still prime minister.

Unlike his life in Cairo—where he was banned from working and unable to integrate into, nor contribute to, Egyptian society in any meaningful way—the Charter allows Mohamed to live and work wherever he chooses and think freely, without fearing either government oppression or mob violence.

“I’m very happy, because the last three years I’ve worked so hard and I’m really committed to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and finally I feel that I’m at home. I’m so happy that I have a job, I pay my taxes,” said Mohamed.

Chapter 3

Who makes an ideal refugee?

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Three years after Mohamed stepped off a plane in Winnipeg, the Canadian government is preparing to welcome 25,000 Syrian war refugees to a new life in Canada.

The refugee issue has become a political minefield for Justin Trudeau’s government after Islamic State terrorists massacred 129 people in Paris on Nov. 13, bringing public fears over border security and refugees to the forefront.

On Nov. 24, Liberal ministers announced that the government will miss its original Dec. 31 deadline for bringing all 25,000 Syrians to Canada, extending the timeline into 2016.

Trudeau's team is walking a political tightrope between compassion and national security. Its solution, announced on Nov. 24, is to prioritize whole families, members of Syria’s much-persecuted LGBTQ community, and women deemed vulnerable to rape or sexual exploitation for government refugee sponsorship.

This means that young single men like Mohamed are being shunted to the back of the queue.

While Mohamed welcomed Trudeau’s overall refugee plan, he was dismayed at Canada's approach to single men like himself.

“I was a single Muslim man. Just to think that I would be rejected is heartbreaking, knowing how committed I am to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and how much I’m committed to my community [in Victoria],” said Mohamed.

Contrary to some media reports, single unattached men who do not identify as LGBTQ are not being shut out completely, but rather restricted to private sponsorship only. Of the 25,000 people the government plans to admit, 10,000 private sponsorship slots will be available. Private individuals or groups seeking to sponsor Syrians are free to choose whomever they like.

Nonetheless, the New Democrat Party wasted no time in criticizing the Liberal approach to single Syrian males seeking asylum.

“After promising to accept refugees based on need, Liberals are continuing the practice of picking and choosing refugees,” said NDP Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship critic Jenny Kwan on Nov. 24.

Chapter 4

Lone men

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Single Syrian men are arguably as at-risk as any other group. Any men of fighting age residing in government-held territory are liable to be forcibly conscripted into President al-Assad’s army and serve a regime that has presided over hundreds of thousands of deaths since the civil war erupted in 2011.

The situation is no better for men living in rebel-held areas of Syria, as they too face possible conscription into extremist jihadi groups such as Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with terrorist group al-Qaeda.

“I’m a peaceful man and I don’t want to fight," a refugee called Nizam told the UK Guardian after he fled his own country. "The government is against us – and ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra [two of the main jihadi groups] want to kill us.”

Map of the Syrian Civil War as of Nov. 25 2015. (Wikimedia).

For those Syrians unwilling to fight and unable to legally claim asylum in the West, their only other choice is fleeing to crowded refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, or heading north into Turkey.

For many, these countries are merely a stepping stone. Every week, thousands make the same choice that Sharmarke Mohamed made 23 years ago: clambering into an overcrowded boat or dinghy and sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece.

Those who make it to dry land, either on Greece's mainland or its islands, are only at the beginning of their trials. They may be lucky enough to receive hot food or medical care at an aid station, but then they are faced with a hazardous overland trek through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary towards Western Europe.

However, European nations overwhelmed by a tide of desperate people are steadily closing their borders. Hungary has already thrown up a 108-mile fence on its frontier with Serbia, while Germany and Austria have reinstated border controls. Poland is refusing to take any new arrivals since the Paris attacks.

Chapter 5

Canadian dream or security nightmare?

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Most of the current flood of refugees – hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children – that have entered Europe have done so illegally and have not been subjected security screening.

This has caused nightmares in European capitals from London to Budapest, as governments fear that terrorists could pose as refugees to infiltrate Europe and potentially cause chaos.

After the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, the public mood turned hysterical when a Syrian passport was found near the corpse of a slain Islamic State terrorist.

Of the eight terrorists who attacked Paris, seven have been positively identified as citizens of either France or Belgium and were not refugees, according to a Nov. 19 International Business Times report. The eighth attacker who carried the Syrian passport has not yet been identified.

However, even if terrorists did pose as refugees, Canada would be a much harder target to reach than mainland Europe. The country is protected by two huge oceans and a polar icecap that no leaky refugee boat could ever cross. The only land route is via the U.S.A, which enforces tough visa and security screening rules at border checkpoints.

This leaves air travel as the only way to reach Canada, and all 25,000 Syrians arriving here will be thoroughly screened.

After refugees are identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they must undergo an iris scan at a UN office to verify their identity. Next, Canadian officials will collect biometric and biographical information from refugee candidates as well as digital photos. Their personal information will be checked against security, law enforcement, and immigration databases to weed out lawbreakers, before any refugee receives a permanent resident visa.

Lastly, Canadian Border Services Agency officers will confirm the identities of each individual refugee before they board their planes to Canada. Upon arrival at the Toronto or Montreal airports, CBSA officials will again verify refugees’ identities one final time before they are allowed onto Canadian soil.

"We are ready to welcome those people who have suffered so much," said Minister of Health Jane Philpott, who also chairs the government's Ad Hoc Committee on Refugees.

Three years earlier, Sharmarke Mohamed also had to undergo security screening. This meant submitting his fingerprints to both the Egyptian and Canadian authorities.

He had a full interview with Canadian visa officers in Cairo and also had to apply for permission from the Egyptian government to leave.

Chapter 6

Plane scared – or plane sense?

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Immediately after the Paris attacks, the CBSA stepped up screening of foreign travellers landing at Canadian airports, pulling aside passengers as soon as they stepped off the plane to ask why they were visiting Canada.

National Observer spoke with two travellers at Ottawa Airport on Nov. 19 who had just arrived on a flight from London-Heathrow. Both confirmed that CBSA agents were questioning foreign nationals at the airplane door.

However, the policy appeared to cover all non-Canadians, not just those from the Middle East. British tourist Rebecca Jobson said that agents asked her why she was visiting Canada and if she had been to Africa within the past 21 days.

Neither Jobson nor Ted Blake, a Canadian citizen who was also on the flight from London, were especially bothered by what they had seen.

“They were doing what they should be doing,” said Blake of the CBSA. He was waved straight through by officers.

But the plane-side screening appeared to be temporary. A few days later on Nov. 23, Torontonian Anjeer Khan landed at Pearson after a trip abroad and said that no border guards were present at the airplane door after his flight landed.

A senior CBSA official who cannot be named informed National Observer that the agency regularly monitored disembarkation at aircraft, saying it was a normal process unrelated to the global refugee crisis.

CBSA spokesperson Line Guibert-Wolff also had little to say when asked about extra screening of international travellers at airports.

“The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) exercises vigilance every day and works closely with its security partners, both in Canada and internationally, to ensure the safety and security of Canada and Canadians. CBSA operational requirements may require that traveller documents be reviewed,” Guibert-Wolff said.

While the CBSA remains tight-lipped over airport screening procedures, the opposition Conservatives have voiced fears over Canada’s ability to cope with thousands of new arrivals.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said that CBSA officers “hadn’t been briefed at all,” on the government’s screening plans. For her this was worrying as they all had questions about training and their ability to properly screen a huge number of refugees at airports.

“What we're concerned about in our role is to ensure that the safety of Canadians is put first and foremost, in any plan to enable refugees to be welcomed to Canada,” Rempel told National Observer.

However the CBSA – together with the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service – was promised $100 million in extra funding under the previous Conservative government back in May. Then-finance minister Joe Oliver said that it would help protect Canada from terrorists.

Border guards are already under strain as they prepare for the possible return home of Canadian extremists fighting for the Islamic State and other jihadi groups, according to the National Post. An estimated 130 Canadians are fighting with extremist groups abroad and another 80 or so have already returned.