All things considered, Aboud Dandachi picked a bad time to return to Syria.
For a good part of his life, he lived in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where he studied, and went on to work in the IT field in the Gulf states. In 2011, he returned to his hometown of Homs, where he bought a house and got engaged – the kind of stuff you do when you’re expecting to begin a normal life.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had other plans. Not long after Dandachi’s return, Assad launched his bloody campaign against the Syrian people. Homs, a rebel stronghold, was bombed mercilessly, and Dandachi, like other Syrians, found himself on the move. He now lives in Istanbul as a “guest” of the Turkish government, with no legal status and no way to ensure he is not forced to leave again at any time.
Dandachi’s plight has touched a small group of Jewish, Christian and Arab Canadians who have mobilized to bring him to Canada as a sponsored refugee.
They have approached Jewish Immigrant Aid Services( JIAS) to handle the paperwork and legalities of sponsoring Dandachi, and they’ve launched a fundraising campaign that has collected nearly $11,000 toward the minimum $12,760 required to sponsor a single refugee. The Indiegogo component has raised more than $2,100 (US) toward a $4,000 goal – donate here.
They hope to have the paperwork in place and the full sum raised by the end of the year so that Dandachi can come to Canada as soon as possible, perhaps in as little as six months, said Lynne Teperman, spokesperson for the local sponsorship group. Teperman has been familiar with Dandachi since January, when a friend showed her his blog site. She was impressed that at the time of the Hyper Cacher massacre in Paris, he had defended the Jewish community. She later saw him interviewed by the BBC and other news outlets and was impressed that he was friendly to Israel, against anti-Semitism and against Islamic extremism.“ He’s your incredible Arab liberal,” she said.
Susan Oppenheim is also part of Dandachi’s Canadian sponsorship group. She’s been in contact with him for months, sending him articles about Canada and assimilation issues. She’s confident he’ll fit right in to Canadian society, given his fluency in English and professional qualifications. What’s more, “He’s a good person,” she said. “He has nowhere to go if the Turkish government decides they don’t want Syrians there.”
A third member of the sponsorship group who wants to remain anonymous said she was impressed by Dandachi’s blog reports that lauded Israeli efforts to help wounded Syrian civilians. He’s written openly and favourably about Israel, and it would be suicidal for him to return to Syria, she said.
The sponsorship group consists of “private people who’ve come together around a particular person, because as Jews and supporters of Israel, for someone to have taken up our cause at personal risk, we have a moral obligation to help,” she said.
Dandachi said he’s grateful and a bit overwhelmed by the response of Canadian Jews to his plight and that of other Syrian refugees. “So many Jewish Canadian communities are helping Syrians, it’s astounding to me,” he said.
Speaking by phone from Istanbul, Dandachi, 39, told The CJN he spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia, where he went to high school, and attended university in Jordan. In Saudi Arabia, he was taught Jews are “treacherous. Jews tried to kill Muhammad,” that they’re a source of “never-ending enmity” and that “Jews are an evil entity who forever has to be feared and fought.”
“We are not destined to be enemies”
It was much the same in Syria and Jordan. It took a long time to change his attitude. There was no “Paul on the road to Damascus” moment when another perspective dawned on him, he said, but a key part of it was learning about Israel’s medical aid for wounded Syrians. “That didn’t fit” with what he’d learned, he said.
At the same time, he saw Hezbollah and Iran support Assad, who was slaughtering his own people. “The people who we were told are our friends were killing us. The people who we were told are our enemies were helping us,” he said.
He felt Israelis’ medical assistance was provided “out of deep human decency” that required a response from the Arab side. “We are not destined to be enemies” he said.
He began to express his views online, promoting good relations with Jews and Israel and criticizing extremism.
In July 2014, he condemned an incident in Calgary during a pro-Gaza demonstration, which turned ugly when a group of “pro-Palestine thugs,” as he called them, held a “lynching” of a small group of pro-Israel counter-demonstrators, knocking one unconscious and attacking the others.
“On that day, it wasn’t just a small group of Jews who were assaulted; it was the very core and definition of the values of Canadian society that were so blatantly and viciously violated,” he wrote.
His writing on Israel and Jews didn’t win him friends among other Syrians, including his own family. His relatives have seen him on Israeli TV and they’re concerned. They told him, “People will hold it against us,” Dandachi recounted.
He has lived in Istanbul for two years working as an online project manager for a Canadian firm, and has only good things to say about Canadians. His employer is accommodating, and he’s been in touch with longtime friends in Calgary who “stood by me when they didn’t have to. I won’t ever forget that.”
As he awaits word on moving to Canada, he knows that as a single male – his engagement broke apart during the war – he’ll be flagged as problematic for security concerns. “As a refugee,” he said, “you learn to ration your hope.”